Pixar, Puberty, and Pandas
“Turning Red” is a beautiful, hilarious family film that perfectly captures the strain growing up can put on family relationships.
Reading Time: 3 minutes
Pixar has the formula down when it comes to making a good movie. The animation studio knows how to incorporate heavy, real-world issues such as grief, growing up, and mental health into an upbeat family movie. “Turning Red” is no exception to this rule. In fact, the film is one of the best releases from the studio in years.
The plot follows 13-year-old Meilin Lee (Rosalie Chiang), an ambitious, passionate Chinese-Canadian girl who navigates the perils and successes of eighth grade. It’s obvious that the writers did their research, as Mei and her group of friends are some of the most accurate depictions of what 13-year-old girls are like in a kids movie. They’re funny, loud, and soul-crushingly cringey; they make fan art of their crushes and obsess over boy bands, unabashedly nerding out all the time. One of the girls, Priya (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan), is seen reading “Nightfall,” a parody of Stephanie Meyer’s tween romance series “Twilight.” Their expressivity makes them endearing, multi-dimensional characters who realistically capture what it means to be eighth grade girls.
However, unlike her friends, Mei doesn’t have time to mess around. She has a close and dutiful relationship with her family, which conflicts with her social life and happiness.
This problem rears its head when Mei first experiences her family gift: the ability to turn into a red panda. This power, passed down from mother to daughter, is activated by any strong emotion. While it was used in the past to defend the family from invaders, turning into a giant panda in the 21st century is both an inconvenience and a danger. The matriarchs of Mei’s family are convinced the gift is nothing but trouble, and warn her of the risks of her power. However, as she learns more about her gift, she gradually learns how to control and embrace it. This makes Mei’s mother, Ming (Sandra Oh), especially concerned, as she doesn’t want her daughter to suffer with the gift like she did herself.
It’s fairly obvious that the idea of a 13-year-old girl undergoing a magical physical transformation is supposed to be a metaphor for puberty. This is made explicitly clear when Mei first wakes up as a giant red panda. Her mother, hearing her daughter’s panic, thinks that Mei just got her first period. While this gag is repeated a few times throughout the movie, it is never used as a point of shame, subverting the typical narrative of humiliation surrounding the subject of menstruation.
More than puberty, Mei’s transformation is a metaphor for female emotional expression. The panda is linked to her emotions, and whenever she feels something strongly, especially anger, she transforms. It’s why Ming tries so hard to control Mei, so Mei won’t have to make the same mistakes she did, and so she won’t have to grow up. Yet these women all give up a part of themselves, something Mei finds she doesn’t want to do. The older women have been raised with the idea that any strong or negative emotion is bad and that the emotional side of themselves is monstrous and should be locked away. But Mei, part of the younger generation, knows that this isn’t right for her. This is a great portrayal of the societal pressure most women face to regulate their emotions, and it explores the internal pressure many women put on themselves and each other to fit patriarchal standards.
Everything comes together in the third act of the film in a sequence that rivals (and surpasses) Bing-Bong’s death in “Inside Out” (2015). After an outburst of her own, Ming is forced to face her own struggle with her panda, which she has projected on her daughter. It captures the struggles of both mother and daughter and enables the audience to understand both sides of the story without demonizing either Mei or Ming. In true Pixar fashion, the film will leave you in tears.
The aesthetic of the film, clearly inspired by the legendary Studio Ghibli, is refreshing and new. The color palette is bright and cheerful, making the typically dingy urban setting pastel and fun. One unique feature that doesn’t often show up in Pixar films is the use of sparkly eye highlights to indicate excitement, a nod to the anime style.
Furthermore, the character design is adorable, and each member of the main cast has their own signature color that dominates their design and correlates to their personality. For example, Ming’s outfit and makeup is primarily green, a color that is used to neutralize or overpower the color red.
If you are looking for a movie that will make you laugh, cry, and shudder from your own pre-teen memories, “Turning Red” is the movie for you. With a host of diverse, endearing characters, a vibrant color palette, and a perfect balance of humor and heartbreak, this touching coming-of-age story of self-acceptance is another feather in the cap of the Pixar empire.