Turning Red

This is not the first time Pixar have appeared to take key story elements from other films. Last year’s Luca seemed to borrow heavily from Splash, Onward had many similar ideas to the Will Smith movie Bright, Cars riffed on Herbie and if we go right back to A Bug’s Life we saw many of the established story beats of The Three Amigos played out with grasshoppers, ladybirds and caterpillars. Then there is The Incredibles which played with many of the long established conventions of superhero movies. It is with this last film and its sequel that Pixar Studios’ ability to show artistry without true originality is most evident though. Yes, occasionally the set ups might be familiar but what they do with this remains fresh and surprising.

So too we have the same situation with Turning Red. The plot sees a kid entering adulthood only to discover that due to a previously hidden family heritage this, quite aside of all of the usual challenges of growing up, involves them occasionally magically turning into a super strong hairy beast creature. Understandably perturbed at first, the protagonist grows to see the advantages in this and they and their peers soon become comfortable with this odd turn of events. Yep, it’s basically Teen Wolf. There is even a scene on a basketball court.

As suggested it is more though. The first difference, other than the fact that the transformation is into a red panda this time rather than straight lycanthropy, is that the lead character is a thirteen year old girl. This is not the first time early female adolescence has been explored in cinema, this has been the centre of a variety of movies from, well 13 Going on 30 to Thirteen. See also for the context of this conversation, Ginger Snaps. This has not previously been the focus of a big family animation though; this is almost certainly the first time sanitary pads have featured in a Disney cartoon. Young Chinese-Canadian Mei, keeps transforming into the aforementioned vermilion mammal and the whole thing is only a thinly veiled period/puberty metaphor. This is great because this shouldn’t be a taboo subject and how refreshing that someone is now broadly speaking to this audience, through this medium, about the changes that they are, or soon will be, experiencing. There’s a message for boys here as well, even older ones. The moment in the movie where Mei’s dad agrees that it is time to tell his daughter of what’s happening to her body when this has already started in a big way, forcing him out of denial, will chime with fathers of girls everywhere.

In this story though, it isn’t really the male parent who is refusing to see that their girl is becoming a woman. Another experience the narrative examines is that of being a mum along with the relationship between daughters and mothers. (As well as Teen Wolf, there are strong elements of Céline Sciamma’s Petite Maman in here too.) More specifically it is the relationship between Asian daughters and mothers, reflecting the life of director Domee Shi, but there is much here that will be widely relatable. Mei’s mum, voiced by Sandra Oh, challenges Mother Gothel with some of her parental choices but ultimately she has her daughter’s interests at heart even if she is struggling to let her grow up. Mums in Disney cartoons have traditionally been presented as either angels or demons so it is good to see someone who, like all humans, falls somewhere in the middle. Mei’s relationships with her friends plays heavily into all of this too which will appeal massively to the demographic it is aimed at.

There is no denying that that specific target audience is girls approaching teenage (and perhaps their parents) but Turning Red will land more widely too. There is plenty here to entertain across the board and while the big action ending might perhaps jar with some of the smaller moments (not least because events do feel a little out of character for one on the players), it is welcome to see a film that knows how to reach out to a wider crowd after the misjudged Soul (see my criticisms of that movie here). Mei is also a lot of fun throughout, both as a panda and a person.

Derivative as some parts may be then, Turning Red is an important feminist parable for all ages and genders. It doesn’t reach the heights of Pixar’s best work but that is a lofty bar and unlike some of their other recent films it does feel worthy to sit in a filmography alongside Inside Out, Toy Story 3 and Up.

I hope they do something with City Slickers next.

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