“Turning Red,” Pixar’s latest animated feature, is a remarkably intimate coming-of-age tale.
It’s the story of Mei (Rosalie Chiang), a 13-year-old girl in early 2000s Toronto, Canada. She’s like any other girl that age – she loves hanging out with her friends, feeding her Tamagotchi, and listening to her favorite boy band 4*Town. That is, until she awakens one day after a particularly spooky nightmare to find that she has transformed into a giant red panda. (As multiple characters in the movie exclaim: “So fluffy!”) Now she’s got something else to deal with alongside her rampaging hormones and the overpriced 4*Town tickets (they’re coming to Toronto, don’t-cha-know) – how to control this giant red panda problem.
Her overprotective mother Ming (Sandra Oh) explains to Mei that the spirit of the red panda, and the ability to transform into it, has been passed down through generations. Once upon a time her great ancestor called upon the spirit of the panda to thwart invaders and thieves who tried to prey on her family. While the need for the panda has subsided, this genetic quirk has continued until now. There’s a ceremony that will cure her, but the longer she embraces the panda, the harder it will be to get rid of it.
But what if Mei kind of, you know, likes the panda?
All of this comes to a head in the wild and totally unexpected finale, which we will now discuss at length.
If you haven’t seen “Turning Red,” head back now. Major spoilers follow!
In one of those kooky coincidences usually found in the TGIF-style sitcoms that “Turning Red” was partially inspired by, the night of Mei’s ceremony, meant to cast the panda spirit out of her body and house it in an amulet of her choosing, falls on the same night that 4*Town is playing Toronto. Midway through the ceremony, Mei comes to a startling decision: she would rather keep the panda than cast it out.
She breaks the spell and flees the scene, using her panda powers to leap to the arena not in a single bound (that’d be Superman), but in a few lovely hops, as she transforms between panda and human, and eventually makes her way to her friends inside. (The arena is open air so she plops right in.)
Of course, back at the temple, it leaves Mei’s mother Ming furious. And, more importantly, when Mei broke the spell, she pushed Ming to the ground. Ming’s amulet, which contains her panda spirit, crashed to the ground and started to crack. Ming’s panda is now about to be unleashed. It had been described as “large and destructive” by Mei’s father/Ming’s husband, but we’re about to see just how large and just how destructive Ming’s panda could be.
As it turns out, Ming’s panda is huge. Like kaiju-sized. In fact, internally, Ming’s panda was referred to as Mingzilla. Ming stomps through Toronto and finally makes her way to the arena (dubbed the Sky Dome. There she finds Mei, who turns into her (much smaller) panda and they have it out. There are some harsh words, some lewd dancing, and some generally zippy, oversized action choreography (much of it inspired by anime, another key touchstone for director Domee Shi).
“We always knew that we wanted a large-scale mother/teen daughter fight for the ages. We wanted that to be our act three,” Shi said. “We wanted the whole movie to culminate into these two characters finally having at it in a big, spectacular Kaiju battle-esque way. We just didn’t know where it would be, or how we would get there. Then eventually, it landed at the 4Town concert and the idea was, oh, how do we one-up Mei’s embarrassment from convenience store. How do we beat that? Oh, what if her mom humiliates her in front of her idols?”
At one point, the fight was even bigger, however, with Mei transforming into a panda the size of Mingzilla and the two of them duking it out through metropolitan Toronto. (This was connected to an earlier idea of the size of Mei’s panda fluctuating depending on how upset she was.) “She gets so angry at that, she gets Kaiju level and huge as well. And then it’s like these two giant Michelin man, pandas having this fight. But then it just begged the question of why?” Shi said.
“That was hard because of the audiences, when we showed it or executives were like, ‘You need to explain why she’s so much bigger.’ We were like, ‘Oh, we don’t want to go into some weird rule of magic,’” producer Lindsey Collins said. “We just decided the best way to do it is just to have one little line from Jin going, ‘She was very destructive and big’” We just had him say that there. And then the next time she says it, she’s like, ‘That big?’ He’s like, “I told you she was big.” And that was it. We just left it in.”
Mei eventually knocks Ming unconscious, causing her and her grandmother and aunties (who are now, yes, also pandas) to drag Mingzilla’s huge, unconscious body into the magical circle. They start singing a traditional song but the spell to rid Ming of her panda isn’t working. Unlikely assistance comes in the form of 4*Town, who sing and make the magic work. Ming, the aunties, her grandmother and Mei all take part in the ritual. It’s time to say goodbye to their furry friends.
Would it really be a Pixar movie if you weren’t ugly-crying by the end?
In the most touching stretch of the movie, Mei meets the teenage version of her mother in the spirit realm. Mei takes her mother’s hand and walks her towards the mystical portal, where she’ll give up her panda once again. It’s a totally unexpected moment and deeply moving. And it won’t be the last time you shed a tear.
As each of Mei’s family members – her aunties, her grandmother, her mother – walk into the portal and say goodbye to their pandas, Mei refuses. She likes who she is and she likes her panda. She’s going to keep the big red goon around for a while. As she turns the other way, she’s greeted by her ancestor, who scoops her in her arms and turns into her panda-self. Together, the two soar above the clouds. It’s a moment of complete and utter acceptance. They transcend, happy with who they are and proud that it’s the decision they’ve made on their own.
At the end of the movie, Mei is transforming to and from her panda state, she’s reconnected with her friends, and she’s helping her mother out at the family temple, and she embracing what she has become.