Photo courtesy Disney/Pixar

I can measure my life in Pixar movies. “Toy Story” arrived when I was just on the cusp of my first birthday. I was wowed by the ocean landscape of “Finding Nemo” in theaters. Due to an overtired, overworked middle school teacher, I’ve seen “Ratatouille” upwards of 20 times. And I sniffled my way through “Monsters University” the summer before I went to college.

Point is, Pixar movies mean a lot to me. And for a while, they had a tendency to line up with major events in my own life. This isn’t a hot take by any means, but their skill at making kids entertainment that adults can still enjoy — along with their unwavering ability to make you cry — makes them uniquely suited to be movies you grow up with. However, in recent years, I’ve noticed a shift.

Maybe I’m becoming a more savvy moviewatcher, or maybe I’m just getting older, but I feel as though I’ve become adept at catching the Pixar formula in motion — particularly the part of that formula that’s designed to cue the waterworks. In their past few films, I’ve found myself clocking the beats of the movie as they ramp up to that inevitable cathartic release. The formula still tends to work, but it feels a smidge less genuine when you can see the gears turning under the surface — less like a catharsis, and more like a group of animators set out to find the easiest way to make you cry.

But Pixar’s latest offering, “Turning Red,” is imbued with such electricity that I never found myself thinking about the machinations of the plot. Instead, I was pulled in by the film’s exhilarating look and expert approach to storytelling. From its arresting animation, to its sensitive and honest portrayal of friendship and girlhood, “Turning Red” proves that specificity is key in storytelling, amplifying emotions that a more vague approach would render impotent.

Set in Toronto in 2002, “Turning Red” centers on Meilin “Mei” Lee (Rosalie Chiang), a 13-year-old Chinese-Canadian girl, as she frantically tries to balance her home life and her strict mother (Sandra Oh) with her friends, her newfound crushes on boys, and her undying devotion to the boy band 4 Town. But when Mei starts to turn into a giant red panda whenever any strong emotion overwhelms her, she unlocks a family secret that will force her to bring her two worlds together.

Directed and co-written by Pixar veteran Domee Shi in her feature directorial debut, “Turning Red” starts off with a bang, whirling through an opening montage that feels more in the vein of something like “Clueless” than a traditional Pixar movie. Mei struts her way through impeccably designed cityscapes, bouncing off the brightly-colored walls while a candy-fizz pop song plays in the background. The filmmaking is so kinetic, transitions zooming past with a zing as Mei introduces us to her world. That energy never dips, and you can feel how eager the animators were to bring this world to life. A sequence of Mei’s father (Orion Lee) cooking dinner doesn’t just idly pass by. Instead, we get to languish in the sensory overload of a home cooked meal. You can almost smell the food sizzling in the pans, the ingredients and spices glittering as Mei’s father carefully finds the right balance. The scene ends on a shot of light glaring off of his fogged-up glasses, before he quickly realizes he can’t see a thing. The humorous moment breaks the spell, but not before the scene has done its work, taking a moment to slow down and show us the beauty of a homemade Chinese meal.

“Turning Red” is glorious to behold, not just because of its animation, but because it deigns to take the messy lives of preteen girls seriously. Shi and her co-writer Julia Cho don’t shy away from what makes those formative years so difficult, whether it be puberty, boys, or figuring out how to navigate your new, cusp-of-adulthood identity with your parents – or, you know, spontaneously turning into a giant red panda.

The film takes care to take seriously the obsession Mei and her friends have with a boy band called 4 Town, but it also deftly animates the feelings of a first crush. In one scene in which Mei realizes she likes the look of the older teenage boy who works at the drugstore, she begins to draw out her fantasies in her notebook, envisioning her and the boy as a couple. Her pen strokes become more frantic, sweat breaks out on her brow … and then she’s awkwardly interrupted by her mother. It’s a moment we’ve seen with young boys (albeit in a slightly different context) a thousand times over, but I can’t recall seeing a metaphor like this extended to young girls in quite this way. 

As a former preteen girl myself, this all feels very true to life. But since the film’s wide release on Disney+ on March 11, there have been a few online mutterings from disgruntled parents who are worried the film’s frank discussion of things like periods and crushes is too adult a topic for a film geared at kids. But as I watched, I couldn’t help but remember how many films and television shows I watched as a preteen about a young man’s coming of age. How many times did I see a boy rendered speechless and/or drooling by his physical attraction to a girl? How many times have I seen a mother interrupt her son when he was doing something far more adult than Mei was?

Those moments are accepted as a general marker of maturity and growing up for boys, as they should be — but why are we still hemming and hawing over them when it comes to girls? When I see critiques from parents calling this film “grossly concerning” or “not an ideal I want for my girls,” it concerns me. This sort of self-discovery is important at a young age, and Mei’s desperation to hide this part of herself from her mother in particular is exactly what exacerbates the stresses between them.

So much of what makes this story special is how much of it comes from Shi’s own experience growing up in Toronto. But one initial (now retracted) review on CinemaBlend called the film unrelatable, and criticized it for focusing too much on issues related to girlhood and in particular, Mei’s Chinese background. This reductive viewpoint completely misses the point of storytelling. By honing in on her specific experience, Shi is able to pull emotions out of the story that are sharper and more powerful. No story can be purely universal, but the emotions can be. And the universality of those emotions allows people who might not have had the exact same experience to connect to the story.

Marginalized groups have been watching and connecting to the stories of white cis men and boys for decades. It shouldn’t be asking too much to ask them to connect to the story of a young Chinese-Canadian girl just trying to get through the day without turning into a massive red panda. 

Sammie Purcell

Sammie Purcell is a staff writer for Reporter Newspapers.