A young girl transitioning into red panda-hood.
Puberty is a strange phenomenon to experience. When a caterpillar is born, it doesn’t imagine a life beyond its slimy little six-legged existence. But as it crystallizes and forms into a cocoon, its body begins to change, transform, and blossom into something new. It might have felt confusing, unnatural, maybe even a little frightening for that caterpillar at times. But when it emerges, it is something more fierce, beautiful, and free than it ever was before, and it is all the better because of it.
Turning Red portrays those same sensations and emotions of puberty through the eyes of a 13-year-old Chinese girl named Mei (Rosalie Chiang). Like all other teenage girls, Mei leads a very busy life. She’s a straight-A student who solves puzzles and mathematic equations just for fun. She has a group of girlfriends that love to fawn over high school boys and pop stars. And she has a strict and overprotective mother named Ming (Sandra Oh), who she works with after school in her family temple.
Her life stays relatively normal until one morning, she wakes up to discover that she has changed into a red panda. As her parents discover her transformation, she learns that her red panda form appears anytime she feels an intense emotion. Now faced with a solution to her red panda problem, Mei has to decide if she wants to get rid of her red panda forever or live with her new furry form for the rest of her life.
When it comes to its extensive filmography, Pixar is no stranger to telling stories about adolescence and growing up. Its most recent feature, Luca, was a literal fish-out-of-water story about a pair of sea monsters learning to feel comfortable with who they are, while Inside Out touched on the complexities of emotions and how all of them are equally relevant. Heck, the entire message surrounding the Toy Story series is all about growing up and how your childhood forms you into the person you become. So Pixar is not in unfamiliar or uncharted territory with Turning Red. In fact, one could argue that much of their success came from this very same subject and focus.
The biggest difference between all of those films and Turning Red, however, lies in its viewpoint. Most of the aforementioned films focused on childhood and adolescence through a general lens where both boys and girls could empathize and relate to it. Turning Red focuses specifically on the female perspective, and that makes it so, so unique in a sea of animated movies. It’s not often where you experience a movie where the main character is a 13-year-old girl, and even fewer where she’s struggling with issues revolving around puberty, growing up, and watching her body change in front of herself.
I also like how the movie touches on Mei’s complex relationship with her mother and her desire to constantly please her. Turning Red’s director, Domee Shi, is no stranger to developing intimate narratives surrounding children and their parents. Her Academy Award-winning short film, Bao, was a sweet and intimate little gem about a mother and her dumpling-shaped son, and Turning Red adopts many of the same emotional beats as that film did.
But again, the biggest differences lie in the emphasis on the female angle. In Bao, Domee focused on the strained relationship between a mother and her estranged son. Turning Red is about two generations of women going through the same issues and both offering a unique take on those issues. Like all wise parents, Ming offers a wealth of experience for Mei, a firsthand knowledge of what she is going through and how to get through it. Mei, however, offers a different viewpoint that the red panda isn’t a rabid beast or a monster to be tamed, but rather a part of herself that can be embraced instead of feared. Both perspectives are equally valid, but what I love is that the movie doesn’t provide a clear-cut right or wrong answer on the red panda dilemma and how Mei and Ming should respond to it. It only provides the right answer for them as individuals, and those answers are very different from each other.
Yet, the most touching part about all of this is that the red panda doesn’t affect Mei or Ming’s relationship with each other. Their paths may be different, but that doesn’t mean their love or feelings towards one another has to change. I find it incredibly moving that the film’s most powerful scene doesn’t involve red pandas or larger-than-life Chinese folklore, but instead simply revolves around a mother and her daughter sharing their life experiences with one another. They are, after all, both women. If anybody can understand what they have gone through, it’s themselves.
Turning Red is one of those rare little gems that challenges you not just as a viewer or as a movie fan, but as a person and as a constantly growing and evolving human being. Good movies keep audiences merely entertained or engaged throughout their run time, but genuinely great movies inspire new stories, emotions, characters, experiences, and thought-provoking ideas that stay with you long after you’ve left the theater. Turning Red does just that in a vibrant, colorful, and eye-popping anime art style that makes you want to get up, shake your tail feathers, and let out your inner red panda in a loud and triumphant roar.
Turning Red isn’t just a fun time at the movies: it’s a moving and monumental coming-of-age story that inspires growth, challenges your perspective, and transforms you into something bigger and better: just like its furry red heroine.