Turning Red immediately took my mind to Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, the classic young adult novel by Judy Blume. That book was a frank, poignant tale of the emotional and hormonal difficulties of a girl becoming a woman. Because it key plot points involved Margaret getting her first period and trying to will her breasts to develop, Blume’s work was–and sadly, is–frequently banned. (A middle school teacher once informed me it was “just nasty.”) Turning Red covers much of the same ground, albeit in more oblique and metaphorical way. Still, the minute I saw tampons and pads in a Pixar movie, I knew it’d be controversial. And just like Margaret, detractors will get it all wrong: Turning Red has a heartwarming and timeless message, and it should be embraced by kids and parents alike.
The story whisks us to Toronto in the early 2000s, those halcyon days when frosted-tipped boy bands ruled the world. Meilin (Rosalie Chiang) is a bright, overcharged tween girl who leads something of a double life: On one hand, Mei comes from a strict Chinese family, and she works hard to meet her mother’s stern demands. Meanwhile, Mei and her school buddies are into pop ballads and cute boys. Those interests meld in the form of 4*Town, a boy band that’ll make you wonder how many times the animators watched the “I Want It That Way” video on TRL. As the film begins, Mei seems comfortable commuting between worlds.
All that changes when Ming (Sandra Oh), Mei’s helicopter mom, finds her daughter doodling dreamy sketches of the dreamy guy at the corner gas station. Incensed, Ming storms into the store and growls at the boy to stay away from her little girl. Duly mortified, Mei screams and sobs into her pillow until she exhausts herself to sleep.
The next morning, Mei discovers she’s been transformed into a giant, fluffy red panda. She scrambles into the bathroom and cowers behind the shower curtain. Ming immediately suspects Mei’s getting her first period, and races off to get tampons, heating pads, etc. (I loved how the filmmakers didn’t bat an eye about showing any of this.) To her horror, Ming discovers that Mei has actually joined a family tradition: An ancestor once decreed the women in her family would transform into red pandas when provoked into strong emotion. A cure exists, but it won’t be available for some time. This leaves Mei isolated from her friends, and exiled into a body she doesn’t understand.
To make matter even worse, 4*Town is coming to Toronto! O.M.Geeee, you guys. Can Mei learn to harness her inner panda in time for the concert? Can she and her BFFs raise enough scrilla for tickets? (Side note: 4*Town’s price of admission is pretty steep. I can still remember when they respected their real fans.) Director Domee Shi, who also co-writes with Julia Cho, cooks up some cute surprises to answer both questions.
In fact, most of Red feels just like a cartoon panda: It’s fluffy and lots of fun. The filmmakers effectively capture that time of life when cobbling together money for a concert or trying to get your crush to notice you are matters of devastating importance. At the same time, the movie gives real weight to the emotions underneath teenage behavior, and the need for genuine communication with their parents. As with Margaret, Red reminds us that the worst thing we can do with something like puberty is pretend it’s not happening.
It goes without saying that Turning Red is an eye-popping animated film. Pixar has long been the gold standard in this area, and that trend continues here. Aside from the usual palate of a million colors, Shi and company mix in flourishes of anime and references to 2002’s pop culture to give this film a look and feel all its own.
Also in the plus column: The songs, by Billie Eilish and Finneas O’Connell, capture the giddy vacuousness of the Boy Band Era. “Nobody Like U,” in particular, puts out a strong *NSYNC vibe, and nobody who can pick Carson Daly out of lineup will be able to resist it. The film also scores points by gifting Mei a diverse group of BFFs. Abby (Hyein Park) is of Korean heritage, while Priya (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan) has an Indian background, and Miriam (Ava Morse) is white tomboy with braces. Animated films have been making effort to be more inclusive, and Turning Red is a sign of real progress.
Of course, progress often comes in the form of simple honesty. As with Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, this film offers reassurance that everything is going to be okay. Furthermore, Turning Red could break the ice between parents and kids, thus bringing a difficult subject into the open. This is a wonderful movie.
99 min. PG. Disney+.