‘Turning Red’ is a sweet, silly coming-of-age tale and top-tier Pixar

It’s also the source of some truly misguided controversies

Brad Keefe
"Turning Red"

The internet in general, and social media in particular, can often be an outrage machine, churning it out in the name of engagement before we move on to the next thing.

For example, I long for the days when there wasn’t misplaced controversy around a Pixar movie.

Pixar’s latest, “Turning Red,” arrived exclusively on Disney+ last week (more on that later) and ended up sparking some unexpected firestorms for such a sweet, thoughtful and sometimes even silly movie.

The pearl-clutching “Won’t someone think of the children?” contingent got big mad. A spectacularly bad “Won’t someone think of the white males?” take from one critic ended up deleted before I could even read it.

And behind it all was a thoughtful, fun and inclusive coming-of-age story that is both an evolution and part of the deep pedigree that made Pixar.

Perhaps it’s that actual coming-of-age aspect that spurred some of this. The central character of “Turning Red” is a 13-year-old girl named Meilin "Mei" Lee (voiced by Rosalie Chiang).

Meilin lives in Toronto and does very normal 13-year-old-girl stuff. She hangs with her friends. She obsesses over a boy band. She deals with all the emotional and physical changes that happen at that time in life.

Then one day she wakes up to discover she’s transformed into a giant red panda.

She soon discovers that her condition isn’t permanent. She only becomes the panda when she’s excited or otherwise emotional. Good thing that age isn’t a time where one is constantly excited or emotional, huh?

She learns from her mother (voiced by Sandra Oh) that this condition is unique to the women in her family. They’ve learned to adapt and control it. Can Meilin?

Director Domee Shi (and a rare production leadership team that was all women-led) hits all the awkward notes of being a tween/teen through an obvious metaphor for menstruation. This may be what led said white male critic to declare this movie was for a highly specific audience.

Yes, only roughly half of the human population can find this topic “relatable.” Whatever happened to inclusion, right?

And, yes, a movie about these years of puberty and rebelliousness and trying to figure out that gap between childhood and the early stages of becoming your own person will rile up some parents more than, say, a movie about how your toys come to life when you aren’t playing with them.

Of course, someone born the year “Toy Story” was released is now 27 years old. “Turning Red” is mostly in the early teen/tween wheelhouse, but it’s obviously meant to be a relatable coming-of-age story for an audience that has long since come of age.

It’s also just a lot of lighthearted fun. As beautifully animated as you’d expect from Pixar, it’s awash in colors and pop culture, with a sort of sweet goofiness that fits the subject matter.

Pixar’s crowning days when they couldn’t miss are long since gone, but “Turning Red” fits perfectly in the spirit of some of the studio’s very best work.

Which brings me to one last bit of controversy.

There’s no doubt that its streaming service is a huge part of Disney’s plans going forward, but it’s disappointing that one of Pixar’s best films in years didn’t get a theatrical release.

There are great movies that get the straight-to-streaming treatment, but it still feels odd for this one to seem relegated to a slightly lesser tier.

The good news for parents who are skittish about the subject matter for younger kids is you can always watch and decide for yourself before sharing it. But despite its specificity, this is a movie that should be enjoyable for most everyone.

“Turning Red”

4 stars out of 5

Now streaming on Disney+