A 13-year-old girl undergoes a sudden physical transformation and darts into the nearest bathroom, burning with shame. “Go away! I’m a monster!” she sobs when her mother knocks at the door asking what’s wrong. Nervously, unsure if she’s intruding on her daughter’s privacy, the mom asks “Has … has the red peony blossomed?”
This isn’t an animated adaptation of Judy Blume’s classic menstruation-themed YA novel Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret. It’s Turning Red, Pixar’s groundbreaking coming-of-age tale about a Chinese-Canadian middle-schooler caught between her parents’ rigid expectations and her growing sense of independence and selfhood. And the condition afflicting Mei-Lin Lee (voiced by newcomer Rosalie Chiang) is not, as her mother Ming (voiced by Sandra Oh) initially thinks, her first period, but her first instance of panda-fication. The women in Mei’s maternal line, it turns out, have inherited a blessing/curse from a long-ago ancestor that causes them to turn into giant, fluffy red pandas whenever they experience intense emotion. And since being 13 is little else but experiencing intense emotion, Mei finds herself in the awkward position of abruptly transforming into an enormous scarlet-hued beast multiple times each day.
Mei’s close-knit friend group (voiced by Ava Morse, Hyein Park, and Maitreyi Ramakrishnan) quickly adjusts to this new state of affairs. In fact, within a matter of days they are scheming about how to leverage their friend’s intermittent bursts of overwhelming cuteness to raise money for tickets to the upcoming concert of 4*Town, the boy band all four of the girls are obsessed with. But Mei’s parents, especially her traditional and strict mother, urge her to keep her condition on the lowdown until the next red moon, when she can participate in an ancient Chinese ceremony that will purge her of this inconvenient, yet strangely liberatory, inner self.
There is much to love about the bright-colored, high-spirited Turning Red, which premieres on Disney+ on Friday: the fact it’s the first Pixar feature to be directed by a solo woman director, Domee Shi, who also made the Oscar-winning 2018 Pixar short Bao. Or the fact it’s centered almost entirely around female characters, with the only major male figure (outside of that swoon-worthy boy band) being Mei’s gentle-souled father (voiced by First Cow’s Orion Lee). The movie’s portrait of life as a Chinese-Canadian kid growing up in an immigrant community in turn-of-the-millennium Toronto is handled with a light, non-didactic touch. The animation seems at times to be influenced by older styles of 2D cartooning, and, in a few dream sequences, by classical Chinese art. But Shi nonetheless makes the most of the 21st-century medium of computer animation: Never has digital fur looked so deliciously thick and pettable. Even 4*Town’s songs, co-written by Billie Eilish and her brother Finneas O’Connell (with Finneas also voicing one of the bandmembers) are a delight, with hooks that fondly send up the genre of teenybopper-friendly pop while remaining irresistibly hummable. But the movie’s most radical element by far is its forthrightness about female coming of age.
Mei’s ladylike, rule-bound mother may be too prudish to refer to her daughter’s period directly, but the screenwriters for Turning Red (Shi and Julia Cho) have no such qualms: Their heroine’s uncontrollable and often embarrassing girl-to-panda transformation is the clearest movie metaphor for the onset of a young woman’s menstrual cycle since Sissy Spacek got drenched in pig blood at the prom in the terrifying finale of Carrie. But unlike that horror classic’s meek and easily bullied title character, Mei starts off the film as a buoyant, irrepressible force of nature, a livewire math nerd whose desire to satisfy her family’s high expectations is at war with her eagerness to sample the pleasures of teenage life. She even—in perhaps the most overt reference to sex yet seen in a Pixar film—draws pictures of herself in a clinch with her thirst object in a secret notebook she keeps under her bed. If the preteen heroine of Inside Out was engaged in a struggle with her disappearing child self, Turning Red’s slightly older protagonist is learning to manage and embrace her unruly inner adult.
There aren’t many family-friendly movies that have taken on this kind of hot-button subject matter: the at times cruel power struggle between mothers and daughters, the awkwardness of early physical maturation, the way pop music and celebrity crushes can serve as vectors for burgeoning sexuality. (One climactic confrontation between Mei and Ming has the panda-fied Mei twerking her plushy tail in her horrified mother’s face while declaring “I like to GYRATE!”) That the studio gave a first-time director the freedom to explore these potentially sensitive themes, and to do so in a tone that is boisterous and playful rather than handwringing or self-serious, is a promising sign for Pixar’s future.
Turning Red doesn’t succeed on every count. There are elements of the screenplay involving Ming’s fraught relationship to her own demanding mother (Wai Ching Ho) that could have been expanded by another scene or two, so that the resolution of that storyline landed with as much impact as the main mother-daughter plot does. And as long as we’re asking for the moon, there might have been one girl in Mei’s friend group who didn’t squeal over boys with the rest of them—one who, say, preferred girls. Maybe next movie.
Without giving any plot twists away, Turning Red’s climax involves a tense mother-daughter confrontation at a large public event. The sequence in which the two have it out is some delirious combination of kaiju battle sequence, exorcism ritual, and boy-band concert film. It’s the rare big action finale that delivers at once on the level of suspense and of character drama, as Mei and Ming negotiate their relationships with each other and with their respective panda selves. By that point in the film, the red panda within has come to represent much more than just a visit from Aunt Flo (though that allegory holds up throughout). Mei’s final confrontation with her cuddly yet fearsome adversary makes clear that she both needs what the panda gives her—pleasure, freedom, the ability to express anger and say “no” to her mother’s excessively controlling demands—and needs to learn to manage this often-destructive source of power. A better (or fluffier) metaphor for growing up is hard to imagine.