Turning Red: Parents Just Don’t Understand, by David Bax
After a detour with last year’s airy, beautiful lark Luca, Pixar has returned to the targeted sentimentality that seems to have been the studio’s favorite mode since the one-two gut punch of Up and Toy Story 3. Any disappointment that may be brought on by that realization, though, is quickly dashed by Domee Shi’s closely observed, humanistic, relatable and often quite funny comedy of puberty and discomfort, Turning Red.
In a literal sense, the best comparison for Turning Red among Pixar’s filmography isn’t any of those listed above. Rather, it’s 2012’s underappreciated Brave, another female coming of age movie in which someone is magically turned into a bear.
But really, Turning Red doesn’t offer easy comparisons. That’s thanks to Shi’s unabashed specificity. Geographically (Toronto), temporally (2002) and culturally (a Chinese Canadian family), the movie is not just loading up on references to Tim Horton’s, Chinatown-bound TTC streetcars and the then-SkyDome. These particulars make it all feel more personal, proving the well-worn adage that the more specific a story is, the more relatable it is.
That’s because everyone’s life is marked by specific things; a story without them feels artificial. So the reference to Giga Pets and early aughts boy bands are there for grounding purposes. Because of them, Turning Red‘s universally relatable take on friendship and the worry that you’re not maturing at the same rate as your tween peers becomes more real.
Relatability is a breeding ground for comedy but Shi is not afraid to let things get heavy. When Meilin (voiced by Rosalie Chiang) starts to develop emotions and impulses at odds with her identity as her mother’s perfect daughter, the inner turmoil is palpable and upsetting. She repeatedly slaps herself at the shame of her crush on the older boy who works at the convenience store down the street. And, it seems, not without motivation. Her mother, Ming (voiced by Sandra Oh), does not turn out to be the understanding protector these movies often employ for easy tearjerking points. When Meilin’s burgeoning new emotions cause her to turn into a giant red panda (rendered in cuddly soft animation and accompanied by an adorable poof sound, a startling juxtaposition to how traumatic it is for Meilin), Ming tells her she has to hide. That wouldn’t necessarily be bad advice in the real world but here, where the panda is the manifestation of the things of which Meilin is ashamed, it’s reinforcing that self-reproach. It’s also selfishly motivated on Ming’s part; for her, this seem to be more about her own embarrassment than her daughter’s. It’s all the more disheartening when we learn that Ming went through the same thing when she was a girl. Turning Red illustrates the counterintuitive truism that becoming a parent actually seems to make people forget what it was like to be a child.
Like a Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode–say, for instance, the one where the girl is ignored by her classmates for so long that she literally turns invisible–the metaphors here aren’t exactly subtle. But that’s because Shi and Pixar remember that their intended audience is composed of children. Turning Red speaks to them warmly and without condescension.