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28th March 2022

Turning Red is turning heads

Pixar’s new feature Turning Red is a story of female friendships and tackles important issues like never before
Turning Red is turning heads
Photo: Unification France @ Flickr

Turning Red recently debuted on Disney+, and everyone seems to have an opinion about it.

As the second Pixar feature film to be directed by a woman, which seems baffling, Domee Shi incorporated her own experiences of living in Toronto as a Chinese-Canadian woman through the character of Mei. This film is particularly special because not only was it directed by a woman, but it was produced by Lindsey Collins, and its screenplay and story are all credited to women. As a story focusing on the experiences of an adolescent teen girl, this is monumental.

Turning Red follows thirteen-year-old Mei whose family curse (or gift) turns Mei into a red panda when she shows any form of extreme emotion. Through the highs and lows of dealing with an overbearing mother and the struggles of middle school, it’s fair to say she has many emotions to contend with. In particular, Mei struggles to handle the expectations raised by her mother whilst balancing her own identity and ambition, balancing being a perfect daughter whilst also staying true to herself. Through the red panda, she grows closer to her friends as she starts disobeying her mother’s commands, whilst also looking inwards when forced to turn into a cuddly animal.

While Pixar’s film Luca (2021) portrayed the friendship between two boys, which may or may not be queer coded, Turning Red focuses on the dynamics of a female friendship group. The film does an excellent job at showing the friendships between the girls, and I can personally relate to the boy-crazy and boyband-obsessed antics of the gang reminding me of my own teen years. Both films did an excellent job at portraying friendships as a younger person, where your initial commonalities seem fairly superficial yet wonderful, and both demonstrate friendships that are wholly believable and relatable.

However, the film hasn’t been without its criticisms. Whether it’s being ridiculed for ‘crudeness’ unusual in Pixar films, or critics are dissatisfied with the art style, there seems to be divisiveness about the seemingly wholesome film. The design style is reminiscent of Sony Animation Studios, eliciting films such as the highly acclaimed The Mitchells vs. The Machines (2021), where they switched between different cartoonish art styles throughout to show the creativity of its protagonist. No one seemed to hate the change of art style in Pixar’s Luca, so it’s hard to understand where the criticism comes from this time. Yes, it is a more extreme departure from Pixar’s norms, but I enjoy that they are breathing new life into a company by making its characters extremely expressive.

Some critics have argued that they found the plot alienating. However, just because the narrative is about teen girls, so a female demographic may relate to Mei more, this doesn’t mean that it’s a “girls” film as such. No one complained when they were asked to relate to having a magical family in Encanto (2021). As the first Pixar film to openly discuss menstruating and sexuality, Turning Red champions de-stigmatisation and is a valuable and necessary film – one that I wish had been made when I was struggling to talk about these things.

There have also been critiques about Turning Red dealing with themes of generational trauma in a similar manner to Pixar’s previous film Encanto. Whilst I do understand this complaint, and partially agree, Encanto used this theme within a Columbian heritage, rather than the Chinese culture that Mei’s family surrounds themselves with. I don’t think because one came before the other it immediately revokes Turning Red’s relationship development.

Truthfully, I really enjoyed Turning Red. Is it the best film Pixar has made, even within this past year? No. Is it a fun watch? Absolutely. I wish it had a cinematic release, but I’m glad that we have it and would happily watch it again. The film was clearly a passion project, and the joy shines through the film. It unashamedly shows and celebrates the cringe and struggles of being a teenager, and I think everyone can relate to that experience in one way or another.


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