Turning Red

*Dedicated to my mother, still around and still loved. Thanks for raising me.*

PIXAR Studios has always pushed for innovation. It is the leading company in CGI feature films and has been since its establishment in 1986. It led the way in animating hair, developed new codes for reflection, and has spent the last 7 years pushing for diversity in animation. This diversity is present both on-screen and behind the scenes, whether it’s people of colour or members of the LGBT+ community. This is why it’s no surprise that their 25th feature film Turning Red is a culmination of all this.

The plot sees newly 13-year old Chinese-Canadian Meilin “Mei” Lee struggle with a newfound power – namely that any strong emotion will cause her to transform into a Giant Red Panda. Along with her 3 best friends Miriam, Abby, and Priya, she seeks to exploit this ability to raise money for tickets to see her favourite boyband 4*Town, behind her family’s back. Even if it wasn’t tactfully handling representation, the story itself is brilliant. It’s an open and honest discussion about adolescence, maturity, and generational trauma. As a newly transformed Mei hides from her mother in the bathroom, their lines of communication cross, and her mother thinks that Mei is finally getting her period. The period isn’t the punchline here, the lack of communication is, with the period itself being treated as normal. It’s an inevitability that her mother has prepared for and is more than willing to help her through. Her mother isn’t antagonistic here, or really anywhere in the story, because the real antagonist is the friction caused in relationships by children growing up.

Mei’s friends are also a great example of this. They all love her but lament her lack of freedom. They don’t resent Mei or her parents for it, they just wish they could spend more time with their friend. This is especially true of Miriam, whose tomboyish looks and particular fixation on Mei lead me to wonder if this is the LGBT+ representation that Disney won’t allow PIXAR to put in their films. On top of this is the portrayal of all 4 girls and to a larger extent their classmates, who are all a little bit cringeworthy. This is as it should be because all 13-year-olds are and that’s not a bad thing it’s just a natural part of growing up. All the children remain likable, even the class bully Tyler who clearly just craves the attention he lacks elsewhere in his life.

The largest story beat is about family. Turning Red shows how parenting styles can affect children of all ages and how the number of siblings can affect parenting too. Mei is extremely close with her mother, even as she begins hiding aspects of her life from her. It’s clear that growing up doesn’t have to mean growing apart and that, even as children get older they can have a fraught but loving relationship with their parents. The relationship between Mei’s mother and Mei’s grandmother is just as important to the plot as the one between Mei and her mother. Mei’s mother was equally shaped by her upbringing, down to her dislike of boybands and their gyrations.

Every boyband parody in the last 20 years has taken inspiration from the boyband craze of the 1990s- specifically N*Sync and Backstreet Boys. Turning Red does this but it also incorporates aspects from the 2 decades since then. There’s a little bit of JLS and a little bit of BTS which helps this slightly tired cliche feel new and timeless. Most of the higher-ups on this project were young teenage girls in 2002 when this film is set, and it shows but the most astounding aspect to me is the animation. The anime influence is everpresent in the comically exaggerated facial features and action shots that look like they’re fresh from the pages of a manga. There’s a lot of classic Chinese influence in there too, which again provides that blend of old and new.

Turning Red may be the latest in a long line of films centered on human (or human-like) characters but it feels like classic PIXAR. It provides nostalgia for a year I’m too young to remember and a lifestyle that I never lived.

It feels like home.

Signed: Your friendly neighbourhood queer