Turning Red

Posted on March 3, 2022 at 5:25 pm

Lowest Recommended Age: 4th - 6th Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for thematic material, suggestive content and language
Profanity: Schoolyard language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Fantasy violence
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: March 4, 2022

Copyright 2022 Pixar
Maybe think of this as “Outside In.” Pixar’s latest is like a bookend to one of its all-time best, “Inside Out.” That was a brilliant exploration of the inner life of a girl as she is beginning to feel the conflicted, intensified emotions of the middle school years, by creating characters representing her inner feelings of fear, disgust, joy, and sorrow. In “Turning Red,” we have another girl coping with puberty, but this time it is the girl herself who manifests the turmoil of adolescence in the most literal terms, turning into a huge red panda whenever she feels strong emotions.

Meilin Lee (Rosalie Chiang) is a 13-year-old living in Toronto who is confident. She tells us the number one rule is to honor your parents and she is very proud of herself for being a straight-A student and following the rules. She has loyal and supportive friends and is good at everything she tries. And being an official adult, at least in the eyes of the Toronto Transit Commission which no longer lets her ride for the children’s rate, has her feeling that she has it all on lock.

So you know that means it’s time for things to go south, right? Or maybe more like north, as Meilin’s pituitary gland is where the trouble is starting. Meilin likes to feel in control. Numbers and rules and predictability are her comfort zone. But life has many ways of reminding us that control is an illusion, and puberty is one of its most powerfully uncontrollable. “Inside Out” was a brilliant, illuminating depiction of the more cognitive and emotional side of developmental stages in the middle school years. “Turning Red” is about the even messier side, and there is very little in life that is messier or out of control than the early years of adolescence. All of this is presented in “Turning Red” with understanding, compassion, and a lot of humor — both the good humor of empathy and the downright hilarity that Mother Nature provides so we don’t all perish of humiliation during those years.

It is very rare that a movie makes me remember how much translating I have to do to immerse myself in most films. Even those made by women are rarely able to present unfiltered female perspectives. The male experience is still the assumed norm. With “Turning Red,” I felt like an ESL student taking a break to see a film in my native language. That is not just because it is the story of a girl or even because it deals with that first time when a girl’s “red peony is blooming.” It is because it is the story of the relationship between a mother and daughter (actually three generations of mothers and daughters), told by people who deeply understand both sides of that relationship and the sweetly sad experience of separating as an essential part of growing up. Co-writer/director Domee Shi was the first woman to direct a Pixar short film, and she won an Oscar for it. That was “Bao,” the story of a mother who missed her now-grown son and wished to have him as a child again. This film has the same empathy and insight. It is about emotions — recognizing and accepting them — as much as it is about hormones.

“Turning Red” does not try to explain itself or generalize. It recognizes that essential principle of storytelling — the more specific it is, the more universal. And so, while at least one male critic so far has thrown up his hands and said he is not the target audience (that did not stop him from reviewing it) and went on to dismiss whoever the movie might be directed at as very small, in fact the intended audience for any well-told human story is anyone who is human, and in this case anyone who has puberty in his, her, or their past or future and especially anyone who may be living with, teaching, coaching, or otherwise interacting with young people. Anyone who thinks that the experience of being a young girl is just too far outside of their perspective to relate do is definitely in need of stories that illuminate that experience, if only to understand the other half of the human race.

The film has wise and witty depictions of the fierce loyalty of middle school friends and the simultaneously delicious, terrifying, and embarrassing feelings of visceral physical attraction both direct (the boy behind the cash register) and indirect (a boy band so adorable you may find yourself wishing you could attend a concert and scream along with the fans, thanks in part to songs by Billie Eilish and Fineas). Pixar always has humor, but this one has more laugh-out-loud moments than we’ve seen from them before. And it has a joyful lesson about embracing the messiness that is clearly a heartfelt message from the kind of imaginative weirdos who go to work for Pixar to help us love the weirdos inside ourselves.

Parents should know that this movie deals frankly with puberty and hormones. There are some scenes of fantasy peril and some difficult family tensions.

Family discussion: How can you be a friend as loyal as Meilin’s? Would you have made the same choice that she does? What do we learn from Ming’s relationship with her own mother?

If you like this, try: “Inside Out”

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