Part of parenthood is the understanding that today’s loving, obedient child can be tomorrow’s willful, snarling teenage beast. And in the same way that Pixar’s “Inside Out” skillfully broke down the swirl of emotions swimming around all of our heads, the studio’s latest, “Turning Red,” uses a big, fluffy wild animal as a way to explore one girl’s passage to womanhood.
For 13-year-old Meimei (voiced by Rosalie Chiang), her entry into adulthood is marked by her occasional transformation into a giant, red panda whenever she gets excited or agitated. Meimei’s no-nonsense mother Ming (Sandra Oh) reveals that this shape-shifting is a family trait that’s been passed down from mother to daughter over the centuries, all the way back to an ancestor who was blessed with this gift because of her close relationship with the red pandas.
For subsequent generations, however, it’s considered more of a curse; Ming has a fraught relationship with Meimei’s grandmother (Wai Ching Ho, Netflix’s “Daredevil”) dating back to her own transformation experiences, and so Ming recommends that Meimei undergo a ceremony that will separate her from her panda self.
In the weeks leading to that ceremony, however, Meimei begins to appreciate her inner panda at the same time that she begins to resent Ming’s constant supervision of her life. (Just as Meimei starts noticing boys, Ming finds some provocative doodles in Meimei’s notebook that leads to a horribly awkward confrontation with the girl’s unwitting crush.) When the ceremony winds up being the same night as the boy-band concert Meimei and her pals have been eagerly anticipating (the film is set in 2002), she’ll have to make some tough decisions about who and what she wants to be, and whether she can set her own course in life without repeating her mother’s mistakes.
Director and co-writer Domee Shi (the Oscar-winning short “Bao”) plunges us into Meimei’s world as a Toronto teenager; Meimei is the kind of straight-A student who thinks of herself as fiercely independent, but it’s only after the emergence of her panda side that she understands how much of her life is guided and determined by her mother’s wishes.
Much like the recent “Encanto,” this is a movie with no real villain except for family expectations: Ming is focused on order and discipline and following what she thinks are the rules, but the screenplay by Shi and Julia Cho understand how much Meimei and Ming are the products of their relationships with their respective mothers.
The writers have real empathy for the pitfalls of parenting, even in as extreme a situation as this, and the film’s resolution offers hope for inter-generational understanding. (Meimei’s dad Jin mostly stays quiet, but when he does offer advice and insight, it’s powerfully resonant, particularly with Orion Lee of “First Cow” providing his voice.) The film’s central metaphor might sporadically stretch a bit far, but it never quite gets to the breaking point, allowing for an empathetic understanding of how family history can simultaneously prop you up and weigh you down.
Shi and Cho mine the material for verbal and visual humor alike, and Meimei (again, like “Encanto,” we get a smart, brave girl hero with glasses) pops as a character — funny, vulnerable, confused and, ultimately, self-possessed. She and her three besties have a relationship that feels both lived in and #squadgoals aspirational.
“Turning Red” occasionally borrows the visual language of anime, from the big, glassy eyes that characters get when confronted with something super-cute to the rounded edges of Meimei’s teeth, and fictional boy band 4-Town — “Why are they called 4-Town when there are five of them?” Ming asks, sensibly — performs songs composed by Billie Eilish and Finneas O’Connell, who skillfully replicate the new-millennial earworms of the Lou Pearlman/Max Martin era.
For all of its unforgettable films, Pixar has justifiably taken heat for its lack of women in the director’s chair, and “Turning Red” acts as an object example of the universal but relatable storytelling that comes from offering a female perspective in family-friendly comedy. It’s a film as cuddly as Meimei’s panda form, but it’s also a perceptive examination of how one person’s coming-of-age has a ripple effect on those closest to them.
“Turning Red” premieres on Disney+ March 11.