Turning Red is the first female-directed Pixar film; Domee Shi. Shi previously directed Bao, a Pixar short. The entire writing team and the producer were all women. Since 1995 there have been 25 Pixar films, it took too long to put a female director in control. The film has a universal appeal but speaks directly to girls, uncommon for Pixar films. Set in 2002 Toronto, Meilin, voiced by Rosalie Chiang, becomes an eight-foot-tall red panda when she cannot control her emotions. It is a metaphor for puberty, though puberty is specifically mentioned in the film, so it is rather overt.
Sandra Oh voices Meilin’s overbearing mother Ming. James Hong, of Kung Fu Panda and Mulan fame, along with a myriad list of other voice roles, makes an appearance as Mr. Gao. I found his addition late in the film to be a nice Easter egg for those paying close attention. The rest of the cast is filled out more culturally appropriately than we have come to expect from Disney and Pixar.
Puberty is a massive change in all our lives. It comes with a newfound awareness of ourselves and how we view others. The film tackles Meilin’s first interest in boys in a clever montage we should all be able to relate to. It also helps us remember how our childhood friendships changed over time and became chosen families for some of us. During the first transition Ming brings a large box full of feminine hygiene products into Meilin’s room. It felt a little ham-fisted to me to make the metaphor so overt. I am left wondering if pre-pubescent girls would have understood the metaphor and this this particular scene was for them. It felt out of place and too simple relative to the rest of the film, but I have never been a pre-pubescent girl.
Meilin’s mother is overbearing way past the point of embarrassment and her father does little to address it. We all had different relationships between our two parents if we were fortunate to have two parents. The film highlights how, as children, we may have had a preferred parent or how we viewed their roles in our lives.
The film has a universal appeal but hides in plain sight many Chinese-specific jokes. The setup of the house with the set dressing will only catch the eye of someone who has been in a Chinese home. The classic, “You are too fat” followed immediately by “You are too skinny” lines make an appearance. Food is ever-present throughout the film and is used, as I have personally experienced, as a demonstration of love. I was so hungry during the film, craving delicious buns. My partner is the daughter of Chinese immigrants, so I have seen firsthand some of what this film touches on and am fortunate to be able to recognize many of the subtler nods to the culture.
Setting the film in 2002 was a masterstroke. I was 13 in 2002 and the director was 12. Setting the film back in time allows the director to ignore some of the drastic changes that have happened in the last twenty years. It is far easier to couch her experience when they happened than try to map them into the modern-day. A boy band, 4-Town, is a perfect nod to the culture of the time. I recall watching Making the Band around the time as we got to see O-Town form. 4-Town’s songs are written by Billie Eilish and her brother Finneas O’Connell, and capture the music of the time well, even though they were one and five years old at the time.
Turning Red was released in one theater and Disney Plus on the same day. It does make the film easily accessible for more people to watch but it is a bit disappointing that it will not generate the in theater buzz most Pixar films get. It is a wonderful story for girls and women of all ages, yet has a universality that anyone can appreciate. I look forward to Pixar continuing to have more diverse writing rooms and putting a variety of directors behind the controls. I hope this is a step down a path Disney and Pixar continue to follow.