What’s your favorite euphemism for menstruation? Personally, I’ve always liked the daftness of “having the painters in,” and the evocative imagery of “shark week.” Maybe you “surf the crimson tide” (actually, has anyone said that since the mid 1990s?) or, more quaintly, endure a “visit from Aunt Flo.” Perhaps you are of the stricter feminist school of thought that dictates all such metaphorical language contributes to the stigmatization of this very natural process, and you confine yourself to starkly clinical terms involving blood, progesterone and the uterine lining. Or maybe, like Ming, the elegantly tigerish Toronto mom voiced by Sandra Oh in Domee Shi’s delightfully personal, perky animated coming-of-age movie Turning Red, you are of a more poetic bent, and tentatively inquire of your tween daughter, who has locked herself in the bathroom in a fit of mortification: “Has the red peony blossomed?”
Inside that bathroom, 13-year-old Chinese-Canadian Mei (Rosalie Chiang) has not experienced anything as delicate in the downstairs department as a flower unfurling its pretty petals. Instead, under the influence of hormones, humiliation and an old family blessing/curse she was unaware of, Mei has turned into a Portacabin-sized ailurus fulgens, i.e. the red panda that’s the emblem of her Chinese ancestors. A rambunctiously self-confident dork who aces her academics by day and works in the temple the family runs as a tourist attraction by evening, she has until now managed to balance her worlds. But between honoring her parents and kicking it with a tight crew of schoolfriends — Miriam (Ava Morse), Abby (Hyein Park) and Priya (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan) — even a girl as boundlessly, often annoyingly, energetic as Mei has trouble living up to everyone’s expectations. It wouldn’t take much to throw it all out of whack, and Mei gets a lot. She gets puberty.
Suddenly she’s doodling pictures of herself in compromising clinches with the boy in the local grocery store, and creating fantasy scenarios, along with her friends, involving her favorite boy band. 4*Town — inexplicably a five-piece — is just one of the things that Turning Red gets so very right, managing to parody the manufactured wholesomeness of the boy-band phenomenon, while remaining deeply fond and appreciative of the service they perform in channeling the fantasies of young girls at a vulnerable stage of emotional development. And it’s elevated by a couple of very plausible-sounding 4*Town hits, written by Billie Eilish and her brother Finneas O’Connell, that are catchy enough to be convincing, but just insipid enough to be amusing (see the lyric, “Had friends and I’ve had buddies, it’s true/But they don’t turn my tummy the way you do”).
It’s a little astonishing that this is Pixar’s first-ever feature solely directed by a woman. On the other hand, it’s hard not to be a little glad that the honor, late though it is, has fallen to Domee Shi, previously an Oscar-winner for the weird and witty animated short Bao, in which a steamed bun became a stand-in child for a mother suffering from empty-nest syndrome. On a similarly intimate canvas, where many recent Pixar hits have spun out into complex, metaphysical explorations of the afterlife (Coco) or the before-life (Soul) or the inner life (Inside Out), Turning Red is much like its pint-sized protagonist and goes proudly, loudly smaller, while still having the confidence and the smarts to poof at will into a bright red metaphor for the elation and confusion of coming-of-age.
The early-2000s Toronto setting, wherein the city itself is flattered by the neon-and-pastel color scheme, allows Shi and co-writer Julia Cho to embellish an essentially straightforward story with all sorts of lovingly observed, insidery details: the noughties fashions, the tamagotchi craze, the ancestor-worship traditions Ming upholds, the genuinely mouthwatering food-prep scenes courtesy of Mei’s quiet, kindly dad (Orion Lee). And even if the character design does not feel particularly new for Pixar doing its “real-world” schtick, the faces seem to have reached new heights of expressivity and subtlety, while the choreography — so crisp in its comic timing — has to be some of the best the animation giant has ever delivered. It does make it a bit of a shame that Turning Red is going straight to streaming, especially come the ridiculous stadium-set finale in which scale is of the essence.
But the comparative simplicity of the story, which involves Mei learning to manage her new ailurine alter-ego while also desperately trying to get to the 4*Town concert of which her mother so vehemently disapproves, is also deceptive of the many ways that the strikingly silly central image — a teenage girl suddenly floofing into a gigantic, fluffy, somewhat smelly red panda — can work. En route to a hardly unexpected moral about embracing your inner weirdo, and learning the difference between self-control and self-repression, the panda becomes a potent cultural allegory too. This is especially true for later-generation Asian immigrant kids, whose challenges in balancing traditional values and contemporary environment are significantly different even to those of their parents, but it’s representative of the generational divide in much broader terms as well. The panda is, after all, a conduit for Mei to reconnect with her mother (and all her female relatives), during a ritual that gives them, of all things, a Petite Maman moment.
And somehow, at the same time, Shi also finds space in this zany, zippy adventure to big up teen-girl friendships: Miriam, Abby and the very subtly gay-coded Priya play a satisfyingly supportive role (as a gang, if not so much individually) in helping Mei understand that being a person with a panda inside might not be such a shameful thing after all. Turning Red is definitely a persuasive manifesto for “releasing the Red Panda” to be added to that list of menstruation euphemisms, but that’s not all it is. It is also a bright, moving, funny, happy film about adolescent angst, that doesn’t condescend but also doesn’t overload. It is, perhaps most remarkably, a movie about 13-year-olds that 13-year-olds might actually enjoy.