Turning Red focuses on the changes that happen during puberty, which makes it highly relatable. However, while its central metaphor, which sees the 13-year-old main character Mei (Rosalie Chiang) turn into an enormous red panda every time she gets emotional, makes for an adorable dilemma, it doesn’t really hold up to scrutiny. More successful is the movie’s depiction of the friction early adolescence has created in the previously harmonious relationship between Mei and her mother Ming (Sandra Oh).
Mei is an overachieving Chinese-Canadian eighth grader who is just entering early adolescence. She’s started to notice boys and she and her three best friends are gaga over the popular boy band 4*Town. However, she’s done her best to keep these new interests from her protective mother, who she knows wouldn’t approve. This has turned Mei into a ball of conflicting emotions. She still wants to live up to her mother’s expectations but she also wants to be free to follow her own path, which no longer perfectly aligns with her mother’s plans for her.
Things seem to get worse when Mei wakes up one morning to discover she’s turned into a big red panda, a condition Ming later tells her afflicts every woman in their family. Luckily, a ritual on the evening of the blood moon will get rid of the panda for good, but until then, Mei will have to keep the situation under wraps as best she can. That means she’ll have to remain calm as any big emotion will cause her to take on the form of the panda. Of course, it’s almost impossible for an adolescent to avoid overwhelming bouts of feeling, so soon Mei’s friends and then her whole class discover her fuzzy alternative form.
The biggest irony of Turning Red is that even though the panda is a not-so-veiled metaphor for the emotional stress of puberty, the situation actually leads to minimal dramatic tension. You might expect some weirdness with her pals or some mean girl sniping when Mei’s panda is discovered, but Mei’s friends accept her animal side almost immediately, and when her classmates find out, they’re so delighted by her fluffy panda guise that she goes from slightly nerdy to one of the most popular girls in school.
Plus, the rules around what brings on the red panda don’t always make sense. Mei quickly becomes capable of transitioning from human to panda at will, stretching the metaphor a little too far for it to maintain its meaning. That said, the inclusion of the red panda is adorable and Mei’s antics in this cuddly form are a lot of fun to watch. This makes the movie diverting and will keep even younger children, who are unlikely to notice the movie’s nods to the vagaries of early adolescence, entertained.
In contrast, the scenes portraying the challenges of mother-daughter relationships, both between Mei and Ming and between Ming and her mother (Wai Ching Ho), are more consistent and follow a more logical arc. In fact, these scenes often do such a good job capturing the conflicts between parents and their teenage kids that many older teenagers and adults will find themselves laughing knowingly or cringing in discomfort. Either way, it’s this story thread that ends up being the movie’s most resonant, no magical red panda required.
There’s a lot to like about Turning Red. Even if the panda metaphor doesn’t really work, it’s awfully cute, and the characters are all so appealing that you can’t help but root for them. So even though Turning Red doesn’t reach the heights of some of Pixar’s best films, it’s still a pleasant enough way to spend an hour and 40 minutes.