The age of 13 marks so many new beginnings. Your mind changes. Your body changes. How you see the world and how it sees you changes.
And, if you are Meilin “Mei” Lee (Rosalie Chiang), a 13-year-old Chinese-Canadian girl, then you have other more Ailurus based problems to deal with – like suddenly transforming into a large furry red panda whenever you experience strong emotion.
Domee Shi, director of the acclaimed and Oscar winning Bao short, is back with her first Pixar feature movie in Turning Red.
A staple story telling technique, and one which Pixar has mined in a variety of ways, is that of feeling the ‘other’. Everyone is feeling one way, yet you are feeling the other.
Outside of the worlds of talking cars, monsters, or toys, the purest use of such a clash must be that universal body constant: hitting puberty.
Such a subject is rarely tackled so directly, and rarer so in animation. Even with the metaphor of turning into a massive red ‘monster’ and back again on a dime, Turning Red makes conscious efforts to address the cringe factor ingrained into teenagerhood, and specifically to normalise female bodily development.
Mei’s overbearing mother, Ming Lee (Sandra Oh, The Chair), incorrectly attributing Mei’s transformative secrecy to the onset of menstruation, actively pelts her daughter with armfuls of sanitary pads.
Yet this invokes bright red faces due to embarrassment at mothers more than the everyday concept of periods, which is welcome progress.
Other staples of blossoming independence get checked off: the gang of friends who get you, lack of emotional language to deal with conflict, and an utter devotion to the worship of boybands (4*Town forever!).
The mental switch to leering over boys combined with the beginning of the reproductive cycle hoist the film out of the realm of relatability to the under 10s.
Turning Red is a movie for teens, those who remember being one, and those that have a teenager to raise.
Is Turning Red Worth Watching?
The mother-daughter relationship here is universal at the core, but Shi skews it towards the particular pressure for perfection and success that Asian mothers are renowned for imposing on their offspring.
At times this barometer swings too far into thin characterisation, making her a simplified antagonist lacking the self-aware nuance that being a parent encapsulates.
When Mei rages that there is ‘no point in being perfect all the time if it doesn’t earn a little trust’ we can’t help but vehemently agree, but lament that the plot needs such black and white in order to move forward.
Turning Red joyously cements what a bubble this time of life is, where everything is urgent and new and yet you can’t perceive how fleeting it will be.
Mei’s co-existence with her friends Miriam, Priya, and Abby connects with honesty, even if the latter two get little to do beyond join in the Greek chorus. Their reassurance is the trick to calming Mei down from panda back to girl, an anchor to what is important in all senses of the word.
Stylistically, Turning Red shares a page with the sublime The Mitchells vs The Machines.
Where Mitchells was soaked in quickfire YouTube-esque gag presentation, Turning Red goes for an in-your-face opening 10 minutes that will either delight or irk, depending on your tastes.
Even if such bombast is not for you, it is delightful that Turning Red hasn’t been watered down by committee: Shi’s movie feels like exactly how she wants it to be.
Much like the young teens that populate it, Turning Red isn’t shy to loudly proclaim its own identity.
The two-hander of youthful exploration plus Asian societal and cultural aesthetics make for a movie with its own voice in which to envelop yourself; a voice that refuses to be buttoned down by the expectations of those around it.
Such an approach will undoubtedly exclude some, but for those who see part of themselves on screen there is plenty of comforting fluffy fur to cling on to.
Words by Michael Record