Pixar’s popularity is largely connected to one unassailable truth: Adults like watching the movies with their kids just as much as the kids like the movies. This is true again for the newest Pixar opus, Turning Red, a film that has mostly been touted as Pixar’s “puberty movie.” This might make you think the movie is like a little-kid version of the animated comedy Big Mouth, but with less overt sexuality and no swearing. It doesn’t quite hit that mark, but that’s okay.
To avoid spoiling the actual plot of the movie, let’s just say this: the lead character, Mei, (Rosalie Chiang) does at several points in the film turn into a giant red panda. This is designed as a visual and emotional metaphor for what it’s like to go through puberty. Get it? Puberty turns you into a giant animal, amirite? However, the film is not trying to do some Disney/Pixar sex-ed class. Which, frankly, we should be thankful for. Do you really want Pixar explaining sex ed to your kids? This film is not sex ed. It’s a silly movie Pixar movie. Toy Story doesn’t really reveal the evils of consumer culture, even though it sometimes pretends to, and having a similar viewpoint about how well Turning Red talks about biology is probably the healthy viewpoint.
Additionally, Turning Red is also not brazenly honest with its grotesque anthropomorphism of hormones as Big Mouth is. This movie isn’t trying to scare your children about puberty, in fact, it’s possible that with all the fantastic talk about turning into a giant animal, various children may not actually get what the movie is “really” about.
In this way, Turning Red is both charming, if somewhat toothless. It’s an utterly adorable Pixar romp, that doesn’t feel anywhere close to being an instant Pixar classic. Because so many kids’ movies are often coming-of-age films (including the recent, and excellent, Encanto) it’s tough to say that Turning Red does a coming-of-age story better than we’ve seen before. Perhaps what the movie does capture really well is the sense of faux-independence tweens tend to want, especially those on the verge of puberty.
The movie is probably too sophisticated for preschool kids, but while watching it, I decided I would definitely let my now-5-year-old daughter watch the movie when she turns 6 or 7. And the reason why I’d let my daughter watch this film has almost nothing to do with its subject. Instead, it’s all about the characters. Mei and her gang of tween girls are funnily realistic and also, refreshingly, very upbeat and positive. Turning Red might be trying to tackle some complex issues about changing bodies with children, but that’s not why it’s watchable.
Because if you set aside the after-school-special quality of the film, what you’re literally watching is a funny cartoon about a girl who turns into a giant red panda. That’s kind of enough. And because Mei is so wonderful, so witty and so relatable, almost nothing else matters. She’s a great Pixar hero, and will put a spring into the step of any kid who watches her; whether they understand her struggle or not.
Turning Red is streaming now on Disney+