Much has been written about how Turning Red, the latest Pixar offering doomed to stream on Disney+ instead of getting a proper theatrical release, touches on the subject of adolescent girls getting their first period – a typically taboo subject for family films. Indeed, the very title of the movie suggests a menstrual metaphor. But while feminine products are briefly displayed for laughs, Turning Red is more about challenging authority and tradition than it is about the physical woes of female puberty – even if its lead character keeps mutating into a giant red panda.
The setting is nothing if not specific: Toronto, Canada, 2002. Our protagonist is 13-year-old Meilin Lee (voiced by Rosalie Chang), a Chinese-Canadian girl who is the only daughter of vaguely-accented parents (voiced by Sandra Oh and Orion Lee). She's also part of a multiethnic quartet of girlfriends who worship a boy band called 4*Town and are dying to attend a concert. But when Meilin wakes up one morning as an enormous red panda, things go haywire.
As it turns out, Meilin is experiencing what every other female in her family, including her mother Ming, went through at her age. It all has something to do with some ancient Chinese ancestor – the Lees run a Chinese temple – but rather than embracing it as part of their heritage, Meilin's relatives all went through a magical ceremony that permanently imprisoned their panda selves in little jewels that they wear. While Meilin is at first mortified by her own transformations – they occur whenever she gets emotional – an unexpected opportunity brings her around to a new kind of thinking.
Happily, this little twist separates Turning Red from Pixar's other Jekyll-and-Hyde stories (Brave, Luca), avoiding predictability. And while Shi's pseudo-autobiographical story is hyper-specific – above all else, it concerns the complexities of Chinese mother-daughter relations – I enjoyed that specificity. At a time when many people are defining diversity as self-representation ("Finally, a cartoon character who looks like me!"), it's worth remembering that one of the goals of storytelling is to get us to understand people who aren't like us at all.
Is Turning Red top-tier Pixar? Not quite – its opening and closing voiceovers are too cutesy, it squanders a chance to give some personality to Toronto, and in the wake of the similarly-themed but sexually frank TV series Pen15, its 13-year-olds are unrealistically innocent. (Not that I would expect sexual frankness from Pixar, but Meilin and her pals act more like they're 10 or 11. Perhaps that was Domee Shi's reality as a 13-year-old.) Nevertheless, the animation, character, and production design are all beautiful, and the physical comedy delivers solid laughs. Certainly worth seeing.