8/10 In 1995, Pixar’s Toy Story wrenched animation into the 21st century early, bringing action the type of action figures that were already growing outdated as playthings to life in a way that simply wouldn’t have been possible in another medium, and millennials have grown up with most of our cultural imagery computer-generated to one degree or another. Now it’s almost 30 years later, and members of the same age group are now digital natives, the most plugged-in, well-informed generation of young people in history, and the same studio is making movies for them.
Toronto, 2002- Mei-Mei Lee (Rosalie Chiang), a Chinese-Canadian girl who is sexually eager if not quite mature, has been doing her own thing since she turned 13, but just a month before her and her friends’ favorite band comes to Toronto, puberty hits like a ton of bricks, transforming her into a giant red panda whenever she becomes emotional per a family curse her mother, Ming (Sandra Oh), hadn’t told her about.
Ming initially mistakes Mei-Mei’s distress at becoming a panda for distress at her first cycle, so the metaphor is strongly implied, but the movie doesn’t hide behind that. Puberty, and the specific experience of a girl’s first cycle, is explicitly on everyone’s mind, and dominates the film more than it would otherwise – it’s not just that she’s bleeding and cramping or turning into a big red monster, it’s everything that comes with it.
Mei-Mei is obsessed with boys, and at one point spontaneously begins to draw erotica in her journal. She starts lying to her parents and sneaking out to go to her first mixed-gender parties. She seeks money to pursue her own ends, monetizing her ability to turn into a panda, the metaphor for her maturity. Turning Red is a holistic, sympathetic and mostly grounded look at this phase of her life.
Fittingly, Turning Red is a much hornier movie than Pixar has ever produced, startlingly so, and that’s the key source of discomfort with it. It’s not just horniness from a cartoon studio that traditionally caters to children, it’s horniness from a teenage girl, more often in media the subject of predatory horniness than a lusty actor herself. The generational rise in fears of pedophilia starting in the ‘70s have stunted presentations of young sexuality, mostly limiting them to the awkward voyeurism of young men in John Hughes movies, which are their own problem. That’s probably the most important and encouraging thing about Turning Red, this honesty about what’s going through Mei-Mei’s mind in a culture that’s still mostly trapped in a “don’t talk about it and it’ll go away” view of sexuality.
But Turning Red isn’t a movie for “don’t ask don’t tell” era parents, it’s a movie for a new generation that’s grown up with legalized gay marriage, open discussions of gender identity, Tinder and regular thirst posts on TikTok. It’s a movie meant to engage with people who are out of the closet and not squeamish about this subject matter. It follows that the main conflict in Turning Red isn’t Mei-Mei struggling to control her panda, but Ming struggling to control Mei-Mei, specifically to force her to repress her panda the way their family has for generations. Mei-Mei isn’t repressing anything, and neither are the new kids.
Turning Red is basically an autobiography for writer/director Domee Shi, a Chinese-Canadian animated filmmaker who was raised in Toronto. The 34-year-old has been with Pixar for 10 years over which she now appears to have risen rapidly within the company, with story artist or senior creative team roles on seven of the studio’s past 10 features and director credit for Bao, the Oscar-winning short released alongside Incredibles 2 in 2018, and she’s the first woman to direct either a short or a feature for the studio. The company asked her for the pitch that eventually became Turning Red. That’s remarkably similar to the backstory for Luca, the studio’s most recent release from July 2021 – it’s also the heavily autobiographical baby of a longtime Pixar employee, in this case Enrico Casarosa, set in his native region of Liguria, Italy.
Turning Red was one of a handful of movies that shifted its release in anticipation of January’s short-lived omicron surge, in this case sticking to its March 11 release but moving to Disney+ – because that’s what Disney always wanted to do. The company has decided theaters are more expensive than they’re worth and can be bypassed with the in-house streaming service, and they’ve repeatedly affirmed that decision. In this case, COVID was an excuse to do something they probably wanted to do anyway. We’ll see if Lightyear, currently scheduled for June 17, will make it to theaters.
Leopold Knopp is a UNT graduate. If you liked this post, you can donate to Reel Entropy here. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook and reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.