The Hot Button
The Hot Button
THB #94: Turning Red

THB #94: Turning Red

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The central premise of this movie, versus what is being sold (“A 13-year-old girl named Mei Lee turns into a giant red panda whenever she gets too excited.”), is a SPOILER. I’m not going to give away details of the story structure that are spoilers. But the text and subtext are unavoidably spoilers in this case… so if this is an issue for you, stop reading now. I think it’s mostly safe… but… just the heads up…


Turning Red is the first mainstream animated movie about menstruation.

Turning Red is the first mainstream animated movie about adult women looking back at their first experiences of menstruation and then dealing with menopause.

Turning Red is the first American mainstream animated movie set in a Canadian city.

Turning Red is a charming, thoughtful, loving, funny, girl power animated movie that speaks without shame to the challenges of going to bed a little girl one day and waking up the next to the literal burden of being a woman.

Turning Red is in the great Pixar tradition of mixing metaphor and reality in animation to discuss real human experiences that make us laugh and touch the heart.

Mei Lee is a Disney princess in her own mind. She loves herself. She enjoys her quirky, very CanadiAsian life with her parents and her books and her Mathlete status.

But one day, BLAM!, something changes.

As she sees herself turning into a big red bear, her mother, once clued in, arrives with a full box of sanitary napkins of all shapes and sizes. But Mei Lee is not ready to engage her mother’s support yet. She feels compelled to get control of The Bear herself.

Don’t worry, boys… this first encounter is the last time there is a literal acknowledgement of what is happening. All metaphor from this point out.

This is when the “complex” story points start and reviews start telling you the whole story. Not my thing. But…

There are two sets of women around the two central female characters. Mei Lee has a group of 3 girlfriends who are each quirky and recognizable in their own way, who will support and protect and take advantage of her throughout the film. And Mei Lee’s mother, Ming, has her mother and 3 “aunties,” who also want to support young Mei Lee, but who also parallel Mei Lee’s story by being the keepers of Ming’s story.

One of the things that is so engaging about this film is the power of these relationships between women. They are neither syrupy and cloying or brutal and villainous.

(There seem to be no pictures of the grandmother or the aunties available… which is a shame. It further makes me wonder whether Disney is too cautious to be releasing this film as effectively as it deserves.)

And of course, there are boys in it. Yes. It’s not just girls. In fact, it may be the first Disney animated release with someone coming out. But the central male figures are the multicultural K-pop style boy band that acts as the both a Deus Ex Machina and as a charming side course of goofy but likeable charm.

When a “girl becomes a woman,” how does she use this new power/limitation/gift? She doesn’t actually know anything more than the day before it happens. But suddenly, it seems the entire world has changed. And if she is lucky, she has friends and adult support that help her put it all in perspective. But ultimately, she has to do that for herself.

Will Mei Lee become a Cassie or a Lexi?

Thing is, what scares parents about Euphoria need not scare them about Turning Red. It is honest, but it is also still steeped the delights of animation. It is, actually, one of the cleanest/simplest pieces of animation to come out of Pixar. It doesn’t look cheap or anything. But it is more about the emotional feast than about the visual feast. And though at first, I wasn’t 100% sure that was so great. But by the end, director/co-writer Domee Shi and her co-writer Julia Cho reminded me that style is just style. Heart is where it’s at.

It’s funny that Turning Red comes hot on the heels of Encanto, another movie with a female lead that Disney clearly underestimated. Many things separate the two films, but the young women in the lead of each is the first big break. Mirabel, from Encanto, is incredibly upbeat, but also carries a heavy weight of not having magic in the traditional way of her family. Her journey is to find/clarify her magic, which we see in her as an audience from the very start of the film.

Mei has a similar upbeat attitude about life, but her journey is really about finding herself as she becomes a young woman. There are some of the same challenges in both films for both young women. But another one of the things I love about Turning Red is that our heroine isn’t digging into the complexities of her family members to see what is truth. She is, as all sex-assigned at birth females who aren’t transitioning before puberty, faced with an unavoidable challenge of biology. And while there is support and family engagement, it is part of the journey of all the women around her or will become part of that journey.

”When it's time to change, you've got to rearrange
Who you are and what you're gonna be

Sha na na na na na na na na
Sha na na na na
Sha na na na na na na na na na
Sha na na na na”

I am really taken with this movie. Part of it may be that I have a 12-year-old cisgendered son who is not going to get his period, but is, like all kids, facing a similar albeit very different set of challenges in the immediate future.

But a bigger part of it is that I am thrilled by the idea of a mainstream animated movie being so light and smart and joyful also dealing with basic issues of female biology without flinching and female friendship without putting a male hero of some kind in the middle. The movie doesn’t seem like its trying to throw ideas at your head or preach in any way. It’s crazily normal, fun, light animated comedy. But it is an important political moment in the history of cinema because this just hasn’t existed before… as sad as it is to say it.

It’s almost like a before and after look at Girls Trip or Bridesmaids. However you feel about the raunchiness of those movies, those are women in their 30s coming together and seeking an experience. The young and older women of this film do likewise, in their context.

Or if you like, this is the female Stand By Me, but much sillier, as any animated film comedy would be.

I am really irritated by Disney pushing this movie to Disney+ as its first release. This, like Encanto, is a movie that would build a loyal and loving audience given a 2-month theatrical window. It’s naturally a shared experience movie and that will happen in homes, on couches. But it’s not the same as going out with your friends and sharing it will a room full of like-minded people.

Encanto could have been a $600m/$700m worldwide grosser - even as COVID slowed the overall box office - had Disney nourished the theatrical and allowed it to bloom. Seeing Red probably had a bit less financial potential. But you know, Inside Out did $858 million worldwide… who saw that coming?

It’s weird to sit here and write that a silly, funny movie like Turning Red is a landmark movie. But it is. It’s not a princess movie. It’s not a woman being saved by or even saving a man. It is young and older women telling their semi-mythological story about what happens when the red bear comes and one young woman’s choice to see it from a very different perspective than her fore-bearers.

Then the boy band starts singing and I feel like a jerk taking it so seriously.

Until tomorrow…

The Hot Button
The Hot Button
An inside perspective on the Film/TV/Streaming Industry from a 30-year veteran seeker of truth.