Directed by Domee Shi, Turning Red is the latest release from Disney Pixar and it has already garnered both fans and critics alike – quickly turning into one of Pixar’s most controversial releases to date. Shi has previously worked as a storyboard artist for Pixar on Inside Out, Incredibles 2 and Toy Story 4, and directed the much loved short film Bao, and now we see her make her feature debut with this touching, emotional film.
Turning Red follows Mei Lee (Rosalie Chiang), a 13-year-old Chinese-Canadian teen girl navigating a changing relationship with friends, family and boys for the first time. As she begins to change, she learns that she must control her emotions or she will turn into a giant red panda; this is a family blessing which feels very much like a curse to a 13-year-old preteen.
As Mei Lee begins to deal with these issues, with the sole objective of seeing her favourite band 4*Town in concert, she begins to keep more secrets from her mother Ming Lee (Sandra Oh). This is done in a quest to sell herself as an attraction and save for concert tickets.
In the meantime, her whole extended family including her grandmother have arrived into town, in order to perform a traditional coming of age ritual and seal the panda away and the tensions come to a head when she realises that this ritual and the concert are due to take place on the same night.
The catchy music of 90s-esque boyband 4 Town was written for this film by Billie Eillish and Finneas O’Connell and group member Jesse is even performed by Finneas himself. The songs of this group are written with the style of a 90s/00s boyband in time; think N*SYNC, the Backstreet Boys.
The inclusion of this band is an interesting discussion point of the film; young girls and their obsessions with their first boybands – this is also something very valid that hasn’t been discussed much in film before, particularly from this place of respect.
Throughout the film, the role played by 4*Town in the lives of the main girls is taken very seriously; where it could easily be dismissed as “hysterical”, there is nothing dismissive about the role played by this band in the plot. The girls’ issues and obsessions are taken as seriously as any real world, adult drama which gives some validation to the experience of boyband-loving young girls everywhere.
Although the story is simple, a lot is dealt with within this film; growing pains, puberty, teen friendships and relationships and also intergenerational trauma. Within its themes this film does deal very closely with issues specific to teenage and young girls, including emotional outbursts and close reference and allusion to periods.
This has caused a lot of the surrounding controversy; it has been described as everything from “too niche” to “demonic” by critics who seem to have forgotten that watching films should be an exercise in empathy and a way to put themselves in someone else’s shoes – if robots, cars and tropical fish aren’t too niche, a story about a young girl growing up speaks for itself and absolutely deserves to be put on screen. This film also shows an age group all too often neglected (look at Netflix’s recently cancelled Babysitters Club) from a place of total respect; if that’s niche, then everything we make should be!
This film has also been called “inappropriate” for children – obviously that side of it is down to parent’s own discretion. While I do think it’s good to be aware of what children are watching, even if it is Disney, when the issues in this film can also apply to children I personally don’t think there’s an issue with younger girls watching – or boys, for that matter. The more these experiences are shown on screen in an open and honest way, the less they become “too niche” and the more they become normalised stories about the human experience.
Overall I felt this movie was wholesome, cute, and simple but a really nice story. I really enjoyed it and I would totally say it’s worth the watch!
Turning Red is available to watch now on Disney +.