Pixar Gets Refreshingly Weird In ‘Turning Red’

It’s nice to see that Pixar has finally made a movie about how the coming of a woman’s moon blood turns her into an uncontrollable beast, ruled by extreme emotion and immune to reason.

I kid, but only sort of. Turning Red takes the Teen Wolf formula of a werewolf-like curse as a metaphor for puberty and fuses it to the PEN15/Never Have I Ever-style comedy about adolescent female sexuality — specifically for first-generation Asian women. Much like Maya Erskine plumbed conflict with her Japanese mother in PEN15 and Mindy Kaling mined her own Indian-American adolescence for The Sex Lives Of College Girls, Turning Red director Domee Shi explores her own coming-of-age in this lovingly-told tale of Chinese-Canadian mother-daughter conflict in what is arguably Pixar’s most personal story to date.

Turning Red stars Rosalie Chiang as the voice of Meilin, an overachieving, self-admittedly kind of obnoxious Toronto 13-year-old, who on the day of her first period turns into a giant red panda. Chiang is a Bay Area teen who was initially brought on just to do the temp track while they looked for a bigger star, but Pixar liked her work so much that they kept her, a nice story in itself. Meilin plays the flute, excels at math, and mostly strives to be a dutiful daughter, helping her mother, Ming (Sandra Oh) clean up and speak to visitors at the local temple, honoring some of her own ancestors.

Meilin has four best friends, Miriam, Priya, and the intensely grating Abby, a voluble-to-the-point-of-psychopathy girl in overalls who converses exclusively in angry-sounding shouts — all of whom are devoted fans of the boy band 4 Town, as well as the local heartthrob Devon, a squinty turd in a buckethead hat that the girls are inexplicably (even to themselves) in love with. Meilin frequently has to abandon the crew mid-adventure to keep from disappointing her demanding mother, which makes her friends lament, “She’s so brainwashed.”

Meilin’s mother herself also takes helicopter parenting to clinically demented levels, finding Meilin’s fantastical drawings of Devon and immediately confronting Devon with them, while her deathly embarrassed daughter looks on helpless. Shouldn’t CPS step in at this point, I wondered? Yet ironically, Ming is the only one who truly understands Meilin’s predicament, the family curse that turns them into massive fluffy pandas any time they experience extreme emotions.

Suffice it to say, Turning Red is the first Pixar movie to attempt to explore a girl’s first period, “the blooming of the red peony,” as Ming calls it. Director Domee Shi herself admits that it was “a weird pitch,” this magical period panda monster embodying its alter-ego’s most extreme (but also perhaps her most assertive, and possibly necessary) emotions. (Disney/Pixar was willing to take on periods and boy bands but stopped just short of the War on Terror, probably for the best).

Turning Red‘s weirdness is an integral element though because without it the film would probably too closely reflect its influences — PEN15, Teen Wolf, and Lady Bird. Like PEN15 and Lady Bird, Turning Red is even a period piece (STOP LAUGHING), though you might not notice that it’s meant to take place in 2002 if you hadn’t picked up on all the flip phones and Tamagotchi references.

Pixar movies aren’t usually this specific, and without Turning Red‘s specific Chineseness, its particular Canadianness, its especially fraught relationship between the protagonist and her near lunatic of a mother, its resolution would surely ring treacly or generic. Shi (along with her co-writers Julia Cho and Sarah Streicher) goes deeply personal, and this boldness seems also to have freed her to be even more fantastical, with a showdown between Stay Puft Marshmallow Man-sized red pandas and a climactic exorcism at a boy band concert. Red Panda‘s hyperspecificity makes it weird, and its unabashed weirdness makes it fun.

Soul took an equally big swing, but its attempt to find some all-encompassing statement about the nature of existence paradoxically made it feel creatively constrained, like a massive budget corporate spreadsheet about finding one’s bliss. Ironically few things turn a movie dull and esoteric like trying to be everything to everyone. Turning Red finds the universal through Shi’s specific story about trying to do right by her mother without losing herself in the process. It might not reach the heights of Coco or some of Pixar’s all-time bests, but, hey, that’s a high bar. Turning Red is fun and sweet and strange, and really, what more could you ask of it?

‘Turning Red’ premieres exclusively on Disney+ March 11th. Vince Mancini is on Twitter. More reviews here.