As with last year’s Luca, Turning Red (2022) is working on a much smaller and more personal scale than we have become used to from Pixar, one is about trying to win a small town’s triathlon and the other is about trying to get enough money to go to a boy band concert. The animation is no longer focused on hyper realistic textures, it can bring the realism when it needs to—the weight and movement on the fur of a creature from the movie’s climax is incredible—instead it’s interested in the kind of stylised poses you’d see from Chuck Jones: when four character need to peek around a corner, their heads line up atop one another. It seems like Pixar are finally changing.
After directing one of the studios most well acclaimed shorts, Bao (2018), Domee Shi’s first feature feels so hungry, she’s throwing out all sorts of visual ideas with influences from Chuck Jones to anime, including what’s almost a parody of those compilations of delicious anime food and a scene where Mei, a young Chinese girl living in suburban Toronto who starts transforming into a panda when she feels strong emotions, starts to control her powers and throws a ball at her class bully, transforming just her arm to give the throw a dramatic power than would fit right into an episode of My Hero Academia (2016-).
In the older model of Disney & Pixar, you’d expect Mei to spend much of the movie hiding her panda form, but Shi takes a page from Studio Ghibli and plays the mysticism with loose and casually; the kids in her school soon find out about her power and they think it’s awesome. The panda’s relationship to puberty is made explicitly clear from the very beginning when Mei’s overbearing matriarchal mother Ming asks if the “red peony” has bloomed and brings her pads in front of her class, but to think of it as a metaphor is a bit simple. It’s a bit about the way teenagers suddenly realise they have power, that they can hurt people, but it’s also a bit about weight, a lot of emphasis is put on its big stomach which Mei seems particularly embarrassed about, and it’s also a bit about heritage. This power has been passed down through the women of Mei’s family, thought of by them as a curse; they’ve all sealed away their pandas into jewellery and expect Mei to do the same at the next red moon.
I think some will accuse the film of being assimilationist—and a big climactic scene does have the spell to seal the panda away being sung together in Chinese by Mei’s family and in English by her favourite boy band 4*Town—but it’s worth noting that it’s Mei’s family, especially her Mother, who want to tame their heritage. It speaks to a kind of conservatism that grows in immigrant communities, in part due to the increased pressures of a racist, capitalist society; it’s not enough for them to fit in, they must excel, run as fast as they can in order to stay in place. And unlike in Luca where everyone comes together and accepts the fish-boys, other fish people hidden amongst the town revealing themselves for the first time, Mei’s eventual acceptance of her panda doesn’t spread back. After all of their pandas are set loose, her whole family chooses to seal them back away, there is a cultural and generational gap that is not bridged.
This generational gap is more broadly painted than some of the film’s worst critics have claimed, it’s about the divide that grows between any parent and child when the parent is no longer the most important person in the child’s life; Ming thinks that Mei uses the image of her to keep calm and control the panda, but actually she’s thinking of her best friends. It’s also about how parents fear their child as an extension of their fears of themselves—Ming had a particularly fearsome inner panda—Ming is happy to blame Mei’s friends for all their hijinx because she doesn’t want to imagine her child so complexly and maybe see herself in there. She’s particularly disturbed by Mei’s burgeoning sexuality, in one of the film’s funniest and most cringe inducing scenes when she finds her drawing of a convenience store clerk as a sexy mermaid, she drags Mei to the store to shout him down publicly.
Like much of the films complexities, this isn’t fully resolved by the end; Ming accepts but she doesn’t exactly understand, she resists Mei keeping her panda until basically the very last second. Shi has made a film that lets its conflicts and tensions lay without being prickly and difficulty, it’s about people with diverse background and beliefs still being able to love one another. She resists that endless impulse of American cinema, and especially its most famous studio Disney, to tie up every little thing and kill the work dead; instead of a hermetically sealed machine, Turning Red is an open and living thing.