Turning Red is Pixar at its messiest, and its best
The new film is a profound and complex take not only on growing up, but on the specific dynamic of good daughters and children of immigrants.
This review has spoilers for the film Turning Red.
Over a decade ago, the law professor Amy Chua went viral for the unlikeliest of reasons: a memoir about parenting. Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother gave birth to the phrase “tiger mom,” and set off a fiery national discourse about the acceptable length parents should go to in order to ensure their children “succeed,” and certain cultural expectations and stereotypes around overbearing, intensely demanding Asian parents. The book was something that Asian Americans themselves railed against as much for its confirmation of dirty laundry as its reinforcement of a negative trope — for better or worse, the hubbub was so loud in part because it spoke to core truths of a certain experience.
It’s unsurprising, then, that filmmaker Domee Shi turned toward this theme not just once in her beloved Pixar short Bao, about a Chinese mother who dedicates herself to her Chinese-Canadian child to the point of literally consuming him, but again in her new feature Turning Red. Shi’s new film can be seen in some ways as a love letter to good daughters and tiger moms, but one that broadens, enriches, and complicates the trope. Yet, it would still be reductive to say that of Turning Red, by far Pixar’s most satisfyingly messy and thematically complex film to date.
Despite what some narrow-minded reviewers said about the movie’s apparently alienating specificity, Turning Red is easily enjoyable on its surface. It is Pixar’s most visually rich film ever, with its colorful imagining of Toronto’s Chinese enclave and eclectic action sequences. The film follows Meilin Lee (a.k.a Mei), a 13-year old girl in Toronto circa 2002 who, like many girls at this age and during this period of time, has her whole world defined by a tight-knit circle of friends and boy band fandom. She is high-achieving and close to her mother — a crucial first step for the film. Its thoughtful interaction with the tiger mom stereotype is how it construes Mei’s relationship to her mom, Ming, as one that is both saddled by pressure and also entwined with love, tenderness, security, and genuine joy. But, one morning, Mei wakes up as a giant red panda, a bodily reaction she goes in and out of and eventually learns is the outcome of a centuries-old magical family spell that she must break.
Just this central conflict and allegory — the onset of the monster that is puberty and the hormone-filled chaos of adolescence — mark unwieldy territory for an animated children’s movie. Yet, this is just a starting point; considering Pixar’s cleanly-packaged, profound distillations of complex adult truths in recent years (Inside Out’s lessons on the loss of innocence and the importance of sadness; Soul’s lessons on how the meaning of life revolves around being alive itself), Turning Red is surprisingly unruly in just how much conflicting emotional terrain it prods at and also leaves unsaid.
It’s a film most immediately about repression and how it manifests in young girls, whether in budding sexuality and the shame they are conditioned to internalize, or in simple joys and how girls are taught to see their basic interests and desires as inane and embarrassing. (When Ming sees a commercial for 4*Town, Mei’s boy band obsession, Mei lies to her mother and hides the harmless fact that she is even a fan. Later, when her father comes to her with a camcorder that she and her friends used to record a montage of themselves dancing to 4*Town’s music, she preemptively dismisses it as “stupid.”)
All of this is informed, though, by the complicated and specific dynamic of Mei as a daughter of the diaspora. As Mei’s panda condition wreaks havoc and her relationship with her mother strains, we see the fine line between love and anger, resentment and guilt, security and suffocation, and how this push and pull occurs simultaneously when it comes to the disorientation of being a child of immigrants. Mei is not simply the newly rebellious daughter of a controlling mother — she is a daughter who desperately wants the approval of her mother, has fun with and loves her mother, and recognizes, resents, appreciates, and feels smothered all at once by the sacrifices her parents have made, and the burden of expectations that come as a result.
Persistently throughout the movie, Mei is caught between wanting to lash out or break free from her mother’s overbearing parentage and feeling wrong about it a moment later. One of the central conflicts is in how her relationship with her friends — a saving grace, here, amid the traumas of adolescence — clash against her relationship with her mother, even when they are not necessarily in actual opposition. When Mei realizes that an antidote to her beastly transformation is in her friends, whose supportive presence keeps her calm, she lies to her mother, claiming that her parents are in fact the ones who provide this grounding influence. Why lie about this when there is nothing inherently wrong about her friendships serving as a positive balm? Such is the dilemma of the good daughter: when shame arises simply from the implication that something can take precedence over your family.
Yet Turning Red never bothers to truly explain, indict, or neatly resolve all of this. One of the film’s strong points is its insistence on not translating these nuances of Mei’s experience, but instead focusing on her just figuring it out and battling through emotional predicaments that simply exist. The closest it does come to explaining things is in the film’s final act, as it brings in Ming’s own mother, a stern woman named Wu who was overbearing in her own right. The film becomes an expansive take on intergenerational motherhood and daughterhood (“I was a good daughter!” Ming roars at Mei at one point), and how Mei, as a child of the West, inevitably complicates the cycle of a certain way to be. The climax, taking place in a mystical forest in which Mei and her extended family of women must go through the ritual of letting go of the bestial panda inside of them, is a revelatory sequence, including one of the most stunning visual shots in an animated film in recent memory, as we see the mother as daughter, and the daughter as mother.
In the forest, there is a poignant conversation between Mei and Ming as they learn to let each other go, and we see the difficulty of both Mei’s need for her mother as an elemental force, but also her need to be something separate. But, strikingly, Ming has her own similar heart-to-heart with her mother — one that, reflective of a different generation, is far more restrained and almost wordless. Instead of creating an explicitly clarifying and heartfelt Pixar moment, Turning Red offers something more vague, less easy, but all the more honest and moving.
“I’m sorry,” Ming says, crying as her mom unexpectedly embraces her. “You don’t have to explain,” Wu says simply. “I’m your mother.”