‘Turning Red’ is Kafka But Make it Pixar

A wacky coming-of-age tale in which a 13-year-old girl awakens one morning to find herself transformed into a giant red panda

From left: Abby (voiced by Hyein Park), Miriam (Ava Morse), Priya (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan) and Meilin Lee (Rosalie Chiang) in panda mode Pixar

Some of Pixar’s films, like Soul or Inside Out, reflect on the human condition with grandiose stories that embrace the collective experience. Turning Red, the animation studio’s latest, skews towards the other end of the spectrum. The film, from director Domee Shi, is so specific in its microcosmic narrative that it ultimately becomes universal. 

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Set in Toronto in 2002, Turning Red is a vibrant—and sometimes unabashedly wacky—coming-of-age tale about Meilin Lee, a 13-year-old girl who is torn between being an obedient daughter and reveling in her early teen years. Meilin, known as Mei to her friends, is a top-notch student who is unapologetically dorky and channels her Chinese heritage by working as an assistant temple keeper. Mei (Rosalie Chiang) and her pals, Miriam (Ava Morse), Priya (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan) and Abby (Hyein Park), are obsessed with a boy band called 4*Town—which inexplicably has five members—and dream of going to their concert. Standing in the way is Mei’s straight-laced, lovingly overbearing mother Ming (a wonderful Sandra Oh). It’s clear Mei is being dragged in two directions at once, often resulting in her holding in her emotions. 

TURNING RED ★★★1/2 (3.5/4 stars)
Directed by: Domee Shi
Written by: Julia Cho, Domee Shi
Starring: Rosalie Chiang, Sandra Oh, Ava Morse, Maitreyi Ramakrishnan, Hyein Park, Orion Lee, Wai Ching Ho, James Hong
Running time: 107 mins.

But, of course, because this is Pixar those raging emotions aren’t your typical teen-girl angst. Mei’s tumultuous journey into puberty causes her to literally blow up into a giant red panda overnight. Mortified, Mei tries to hide herself in the bathroom. When her mom knocks on the door, she assumes Mei has gotten her period and asks, “Did the red peony bloom?” Credit where credit is due as Shi and her team of filmmakers don’t shy away from period talk or try to gloss over the obvious metaphor here. While Mei is dealing with a slightly more complicated issue, Ming is ready for the moment with an armful of animated maxi pads and a recommendation to use a hot water bottle. And we, as an audience, are ready for periods not to be so taboo. 

At first, Mei tries to hide her new furry self, but she quickly realizes the upsides of allowing your inner panda to emerge. Her friends barely pause at the revelation and classmates who previously had taunted Mei begin to accept her. Once she stops holding in her emotions, Mei becomes more herself—a great message for viewers young and old. This transformation into a panda has ancient roots in Mei’s family. The issue, as it turns out, is common for all of the young women on her mother’s side. Still, it’s a surprise how the story unfolds and what Mei decides to do with her newfound alter ego. 

Younger audiences will revel in the quirky action and the pitch-perfect early ‘00s pop tunes, written for the film by Billie Eilish and Finneas. Mei is delightful, a likable, specific protagonist who isn’t intended to represent every viewer. She’s herself, this is her unique story, and it will resonate with different people in different ways. Millennial audiences will note the nostalgic touches, like Mei’s beloved Tamagotchi, and there are notable cultural flourishes that those of Chinese descent will appreciate. Like in her short film Bao, Shi is adept at finding the nuances in her characters. This is a deeply personal film, which may feel unexpected in a Pixar movie. But the pains of growing up and feeling stuck between youthful adventure and the tradition of your family are resonant for any viewer, regardless of their own experience with puberty. 

At one point Mei’s dad encourages her to accept her emotions in both the highs and the lows. “The point isn’t to push the bad stuff away,” he tells her. “It’s to make room for it and live with it.” Mei’s energy, which drives Turning Red, is infectious, but it’s sentiments like this that really linger. We all have a giant red panda inside of us and it’s up to us to hold it in or let it free. 

Observer Reviews are regular assessments of new and noteworthy cinema.


‘Turning Red’ is Kafka But Make it Pixar