Written by Niamh Brook
Pixar made a name for itself as a powerhouse of animation through its complex and emotive storytelling coupled with its passion for the artform of animation. However the 2010’s resulted in a mixed bag of Pixar feature films, with cash grab sequels seemingly favoured over original content. I feared this shift marked the beginning of the end of the studio I loved dearly and with a pandemic causing Pixar’s latest films to go directly to streaming, It felt like the end was nigh. But that might not be the case, both Soul and Luca, demonstrate Pixar’s signature strengths and were both wonderful films. So will the studios newest release, Turning Red, match the strengths of it predecessors or will it see itself played on BBC One every Boxing Day for the rest of time along with the other below par Pixar films?
Turning Red feels like a breath of fresh air within the Pixar cannon and is perhaps one of their best stories in years. Telling the story of Meilin Lee, a straight A student boy band finantic living in Toronto in 2002. Mei struggles to cope under the pressure of perfection as she navigates her early teenage years; friends, boys, independence and even sexuality. However, this is a Pixar film so a twist is expected, when Mei gets emotional, she transforms into a massive Red Panda, and with Mei being a pubescent teenage girl, emotions are high!
What makes Turning Red so refreshing, it is a story about puberty and it doesn’t shy away from it. Period jokes, words like crap and perv, sexy drawings, the film has it all! The film even contains a scene where Mei is clearly getting sexually aroused, something I certainly wasn’t expecting but was thrilled to see. Teenagers go through a lot of new emotions during puberty, their bodies change and they discover who they are. Director Domee Shi embraces this and makes a film that feels like a love letter to puberty. Yes, it has some similar story beats to previous films (especially when you remember that Pixar’s last release, Luca, also had a ‘monster’ analogy) but it works wonderfully in the context of this story.
When I first heard the premise of Turning Red I wasn’t convinced, with it sounding a little too childish. God was I wrong. Mei’s red panda and her subsequent suppression is perhaps the most perfect way to tell this story. Her body literally transforms into her panda form, she is unable to control her emotions and her panda allows her to discover who she is and what she stands for. Even though we might not have grown a tail during our teenage years, we can all empathise with Mei, we understand what she is going through. Even for a younger audience, the film can act as a tool to prep them for what’s to come, something I wish I had. On a deeper level, Mei’s red panda can work as an allegory for anything society teaches us to suppress and the film openly teaches the audience ‘let your freak flag fly, an important lesson for any age.
This is not just a story about puberty, it's also a story about women written and directed by women. Watching the film I felt emotional at times, we live in a post me-too era, where (to me) a lot of feminism in film feels forced, telling women we are empowered as opposed to showing it (I’m looking at you Avengers Endgame). Turning Red embraces femininity and everything that comes with it. Period jokes, imperfect mother/daughter relationships and the wonders of female friendship. Every female character in this film is flawed, our lead, Mei, is presented as a flawed character throughout the narrative, no one is perfect, so why should female characters be? Domee Shi managed to create characters who are simply an amalgamation of pixels and code that feel three dimensional, real and ultimately human.
With Turning Red, Pixar finally feels as though it is back on track. A visually striking, wonderfully hilarious and refreshingly honest take on puberty and womanhood. It’s unique premise expertly utilised to tell a brilliant story with heart and whit, Turning Red solidifies a new age for Pixar, and I for one can’t wait to see what else they have up their sleeve.