Teenage Nostalgia in “Turning Red”

Photo courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures and Pixar Animation Studios | Mei and friends.

“Turning Red” is a comedic movie that celebrates growing up and all the mess that comes along with it.

“Turning Red” is Pixar and Disney’s latest animated film about a teenager who learns that she has inherited the power to turn into a large red panda when she becomes emotional. Her family has a way of pacifying this power but only if Meilin, the protagonist, can refrain from transforming too often over the next month. Unfortunately, her favorite boy band is coming to town and that makes things a bit complicated for her and her friends.

There is a lot to like in this film, from the general comedy to the wholly-relatable teenage experience. Meilin begins the film as the dutiful daughter type but breaks out of her shell in a way that feels natural, despite the red panda in the room. The motivations for her character growth are her friends and the desire to see their favorite boy band together. While the way they set out to accomplish this feat is odd, the journey itself is nostalgic and endearing. 

“Turning Red” relies on the relationship between mothers and daughters for tension and is very successful at it. Sandra Oh plays Meilin’s helicopter mom, Ming, and manages to poke fun at the stereotype while also showing why it exists in the first place. Ming loves her daughter and makes sure that everyone in town knows it, especially the school security guard. She knows her daughter is changing and is desperate to maintain their close relationship.

The animation in this film aids in this kind of character building as all of the characters are unique and expressive. Sometimes the characters will make faces that perfectly relay what they are feeling, and at other times the face will be a punchline. There are different face shapes, body types and skin tones that make this film less stale when compared to some of Pixar’s former work of thin waisted and small faced main characters. It does not quite reach the insane level of detail that “Encanto” achieved, except for a few beautiful cooking sequences, but the animation is still of a very high quality.

Another area that “Turning Red” succeeds in is nostalgia. The film takes place in 2002 and plays heavily on the boy band craze at that time. The band, 4 Town, seems to be based on NSYNC and the Backstreet Boys but it does not require prior knowledge to get the humor. The meteoric rise of One Direction in the early 2010s, and BTS more recently, make the jokes work just as well now as they would have then. It isn’t just the boy bands though, there is also a Tamagotchi clone, bulky video recorders and mixtapes that can really take you back to that period. 

While “Turning Red” has a lot going for it, it is not bulletproof. Some of the metaphors are abundantly obvious but others, like selling pictures of Mei’s red panda to her classmates, I either cannot answer or don’t like the answer that I can come up with. The character development for Meilin is excellent but the method is a head scratcher. The family history is referenced a lot but is really only explored when it is convenient which makes it difficult to see what happens next. In some ways that unpredictability is a real boon to the film but it detracts at times.

“Turning Red” is an excellent film that will make you laugh out loud at times. It manages to be relatable and nostalgic while still maintaining an unpredictable element that keeps you engaged. There are definitely questions that I still have about certain plot points but even without all the answers, this film is still definitely worth a watch.

Star Rating 4\5

[Turning Red is available to stream only on Disney+]

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