Turning Red: Stunning Specificity Equals Evocative Universality

Universality in film is best achieved by a mastering of specificity. The more and more a film pushes to widely speak for all, the less it usually does; the more it focuses on the minutiae of what makes people (specific people) people, the more it allows us to experience a shared humanity. Turning Red exemplifies this excellently, zooming in on evoking the specific experience of Mei (Rosalie Chiang), a thirteen-year-old girl that is part of the Asian Canadian community in Toronto in 2002, so as to become a window into humanity. The film gets the little things right: presenting a compelling and convincing person, and surrounding her with a known world, a precise grounding that allows the film to pull off fantastical moments and large metaphors.

Fundamentally, Turning Red is a film about puberty. It’s also a film about a girl who suddenly, after experiencing a shift in their emotional state, transforms into a giant red panda. Said red panda is utterly adorable (beautifully realised by the magicians at Pixar) but certainly an inconvenience. Mei, like so many, is trying to avoid drawing attention to herself, and is specifically trying to avoid awkward encounters. Her controlling mother (Sandra Oh) certainly doesn’t help with this (being the catalyst for a slew of unbelievably embarrassing moments in the opening act, to the point of slight hyperbole, one of the few times the film feels like it overreaches); her suddenly being a giant red panda helps even less.

Turning Red. Dir. Domee Shi.

Evidently, and in a way the film fully embraces, the panda is a metaphor. It is a film about puberty because it is a film about a girl that starts to transform into a giant red panda. Turning Red is explicitly about the realisation that we change as we grow up, that we cannot stay the same way forever and that some stages of maturation are uncomfortable, far more public than you would like and just darn complicated. Again, the film is incredibly relatable. If you haven’t felt this, you will at least know people who have and be able to link the specific to the universal. It is a film with a very clearly spelled out message, but a very important message, one that pertains to adults and children. Like Pixar’s best (and this is their best since Coco (2017)), the film speaks across generational boundaries, managing to do so in different ways while never alienating any audience. It is all due to how well the film replicates family dynamics, and cross-generation interaction, giving everybody an understanding from their own position.

The candidness really helps the film. Though there are impressive nuances to its messaging (it directly states a lot but there’s even more left implied), the film is incredibly upfront. Where Luca (2021) was certainly guilty of not committing to its subtext, and pulled away from dealing with specifics, Turning Red has no fear. It is a film about puberty and it talks directly about puberty. A family film directly mentioning periods, and spinning its central metaphor out of this (though the central metaphor is more than this), shouldn’t be a big deal. However, due to the way wider culture treats people that have periods (basically, trying to pretend the whole thing doesn’t exist and manufacturing a culture of shame), this does feel like a big thing. Or, perhaps more appropriately, it feels like the right thing. It is another way that the film manages to capture the essence of real life even when going off on flights of fantastical fancy.

Turning Red. Dir. Domee Shi.

After all, Turning Red is a big, bold and energetic film. It is loud, it is bright and it is in your face. It superbly matches its form and expression to its main characters, functioning as a perfect ode to the weird-kids (the best kids) in the most endearing ways. The film’s narrative follows a pretty expected through line but it peppers this known trajectory with a whole lot of creativity. Sequences form a familiar overall pattern but the moments themselves are deeply original. This is matched by such visual splendour. It is a Pixar film, so it being technically beautiful is no surprise; the visual dynamism, however, defies expectations. There is such a fluidity to the art style, it weaves between evocative reference points (many you will pick up on, many you won’t) and is willing to be more plasticine in nature than your average digital animation. Proportions mostly maintain, but only mostly, as Turning Red is willing to distort or shift its visuals in a way that perfectly suits its narrative. It is full of wild creativity and just visual brilliance. There’s a lot of excess here, with straight up surreal sequences, and it all works so well.

But, it really all comes back to the human heart, the reason Pixar classics have always been classics. Yes, this is a fun romp that builds up to a kaiju-esque climax. But, fundamentally, it is a film about us. A film about the messy humanity that exists in us all and has defined all of our lives. Turning Red will speak directly to entire demographics, both specific and broad ones, that have long been neglected by the homogenous premises of family films. But, though less importantly, it speaks clearly to all. It is full of such resonance, joy and humour; it gives you a whole cast of endearing and entertaining characters in a well scaled but wholly believable cinematic world. It’s a lovely achievement, and a wonderful film. Sure, there are rough edges, cheesy digressions and the like, but this merely adds to its reality, and to its overall charm.


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