Roger Ebert once called movies “a machine that generates empathy,” and there’s almost no studio that manufactures that product better or more consistently than Pixar. Starting with its earliest films, the animation powerhouse has given viewers an opportunity to see themselves, and others, from a variety of perspectives—parent or child, savior or scoundrel, instigator or spectator, and so on. Turning Red is by far Pixar’s most sophisticated character portrait to date, and one of its most challenging, albeit not necessarily for reasons tied to the film’s skilled and joyful cultural and geographic specificity.
Director Domee Shi’s film could not have arrived at a more important moment, putting complex Asian characters (and specifically, multiple generations of women) at the center of a story that explores and celebrates their multi-dimensionality. Turning Red also reflects a new level of refinement in Pixar’s animation, which increasingly reveals direct and immediate human (as opposed to toy, bug, car, robot, anthropomorphized emotion) experiences. The result provides reassurance to those who share these experiences in real life, and an opportunity for those who don’t.
Set in 2002 Toronto, the film follows Meilin Lee (an irrepressible Rosalie Chiang), a self-possessed but dutiful 13-year-old girl who awakens one morning to discover that she’s been transformed into a gigantic red panda by her raging adolescent hormones. The catalyst that Pixar chooses here is the first example of its creators’ storytelling shrewdness: As easy (and appropriately) as it might have been to use the beast as cuddly stand-in for the girl’s first menstrual cycle, Shi instead implements it as a metaphor for the volatility of fledgling adult emotions, something that everyone in the audience has experienced, or will.
Meilin’s newfound predicament comes as no surprise to her mother Ming (Sandra Oh), who is determined to be helpful (perhaps to a fault), and encourages her to be patient until the Lee family can perform a ritual to exorcise the panda’s spirit. But after learning that an all-important boy band concert falls on the same night as the ritual—and the only way to get tickets not only involves exploiting her panda alter ego for cash, but actively lying to her mom for the first time—Meilin must juggle Ming’s expectations as she navigates her own evolving sense of empowerment, fearing the chance of disappointing parents to whom she’s always been obedient while delicately taking her first important steps into adulthood.
Chinese Canadian director and co-writer Shi set her first feature film in the context of her own upbringing (she was 15 in 2002), and viewers from that region (and background) will undoubtedly recognize much within Meilin’s landscape. But what’s so compelling about the story is how little effort is required to find a point of view with which to relate, even if you’re not Canadian, or Chinese, or a girl.
More than a little bit like Pixar’s wonderful Inside Out, Turning Red tells a powerful story about adolescence, fitting in, and finding oneself at a time when emotional responses to the world can be the most difficult to manage. Teenage volatility seems to be a mental state that adults have consistent trouble remembering, but Shi brings it sharply into focus, first as Meilin unexpectedly develops her first teenage sex-adjacent crush on a boy, and then as she is faced with the challenge of controlling her emotions in junior high school, a time of life that seems full of triggers.
But more than that, Meilin is a child who has always received the approval of her parents. She doesn’t want to jeopardize that, even if it means letting her mom unfairly vilify her friends, and enduring well-meaning efforts that embarrass her. Even if your dynamic as a child wasn’t one of constantly seeking approval, the movie highlights how paralyzing that experience can be to a friend or acquaintance who was (or still is).
Ming, meanwhile, is classically overprotective of Meilin—not just of her health and safety, but of the perception she has created of her daughter as innocent and perfect. The reveal that Ming clashed explosively with her own mother during adolescence offers real insight both into the reasons that she hovers over Meilin, passing along the same behaviors she experienced and responded to as a teenager, as well as the earnest if misguided work she does to prevent her daughter from going down the same path, experiencing it now from the point of view of the mom to a girl who’s growing up whether she’s ready or not. There’s also the manifestation of Ming’s own panda, a monstrous and fearsome expression of anger that personifies the feeling many people have when their own parents express dissatisfaction.
There are, of course, culturally reinforced explanations for some of these behaviors, including fealty to the family unit, deference to elders, and so forth. But all of that only adds dimensionality and specificity to these more universal dynamics that the characters act out—and all of that exists in many other cultures that aren’t Chinese. Parents have been shaping their daughters and driving them crazy at the same time for millennia (and not just moms).
The teenage girls here obsess over and romanticize their Backstreet Boys and ’N Sync proxies (Billie Eilish and Finneas approximate their pre-fab ear candy with merciless if affectionate accuracy). But there have been teen idols like them for decades, which previous generations almost invariably worried were corrupting the youth and loosening collective morals. Is there anybody who hasn’t at least briefly developed a completely nonsensical crush on an artist or actor, album, or piece of pop culture ephemera and let that drive them to make some questionable decisions (or at least decisions that their parents wouldn’t necessarily think were the right ones)?
A bit more conventionally, there are the not-so-subtle strains of Teen Wolf that this film echoes as well, charting the panda’s initial novelty and appeal to Meilin’s classmates to a perhaps inevitable moment when that alter ego gets out of control and scares the people who previously idolized her. But you don’t have to be a teenager, or a mom, or even remember what it was like to be either one of those things to find someone to connect to in the film. Meilin’s father Jin (Orion Lee) casts a light shadow in comparison to his aggressively involved wife, but he’s always there watching, and offering his insights when they’re most needed, even if no one thought to ask him for them.
While the design and the details are different here, the sensation for viewers is similar to what it was like watching Toy Story back in 1995: Are you the kid playing make-believe with your toys? The parent watching your child move on from their playthings, and by extension, from you? The de facto group leader watching your assumed authority get usurped? The newcomer discovering important truths about what came before you?
Its impact depends less on how determined you are to see your own point of view reflected than on how open you are to understanding others’ viewpoints. The studio’s creators have become experts in delivering a panorama of perspectives, and 27 years later, Pixar has preserved these core principles while improving on the way they’re used in its stories.
Ultimately, a film doesn’t have to be about you, or be from what you perceive is your perspective, for it to resonate with you, and even enlighten you. Pixar not only creates this variety of viewpoints, but thinks each of them through so that they are complex and dimensionalized. And Turning Red evidences that approach, and that skill, extraordinarily well—as long as you’re willing to give yourself over to what you can get from their films instead of what you’re already bringing to them.