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Pixar’s Trend of Personal Storytelling is More Evident Than Ever in Turning Red

By Karis Fields


Photo: The Wrap – Source


In an age where a vast majority of popular films are those that are either sequels, reboots, or part of a larger franchise, film animation studio Pixar has leaned more towards more original film concepts since the 2019 release of Toy Story 4. Pixar seems to be following a trend recently in their films which highlights more personal stories as opposed to universal ones. If this wasn’t evident in any of their last three film releases, it’s absolutely evident in their newest film Turning Red.


First and foremost, Turning Red is an allegory for puberty and the beginning transitions from girlhood to womanhood. The story is about a 13-year-old Chinese-Canadian girl in 2002, Meilin Lee. Meilin is a straight-A student, an overachiever, very confident, and incredibly dorky. She is also close to her mother. While Meilin is a dutiful daughter to her oftentimes overbearing mother, she also struggles with wanting to experience the complete and utter chaos of adolescence. The struggle becomes more challenging in Meilin’s life when she wakes up and discovers she now turns into a giant red panda whenever she gets angry, upset, or excited.


Turning Red is also probably one of Pixar’s most diverse films, not only having its main cast of characters be of different races and ethnicities but also its background characters. The film is filled with Asian, Indian, and Middle Eastern representation.


Not only has a glass ceiling been broken with the amount of diversity in this film, but behind the scenes as well. The film’s director, Domee Shi, is the first woman to solely direct a Pixar film. Shi was also the first woman to direct a Pixar short film, 2018’s Academy Award winning Bao.


Turning Red is one of Shi’s most personal projects, being based around her own coming-of-age experience growing up in Toronto and going through puberty. “It was horrifying,” she says in an interview with Den of Geek. “I was bigger, hairier. My emotions were all over the place, I was fighting with my mom all the time. Making this movie was my attempt to unpack what was happening at the time.”


Critics have called Shi’s feature film one of the most personal ones Pixar has made thus far. Up until the release of Onward in 2020, Pixar had prided itself in creating stories which spoke to universal themes. Some of these themes included love, loss, family, growing up, belonging. While Turning Red shares the universal feelings someone may go through in their more awkward years, the film tackles the far more personal, far less represented storyline of putting an end to the repeated line of the cultural generational trauma passed from mother to daughter.


Along with this universal storytelling, Pixar’s earlier films would typically be set in places that could easily be changed without any consequence to the story already being told. Pixar has begun to sort of world-build in their newest releases. We get the Back to the Future Hill Valley-esque D&D suburbia that plays part into what Onward is, the realistically and thoroughly animated New York that gives life to Soul, and the beautiful Italian coast of Portorosso in Luca that’s inspired by the director’s childhood hometown.


Even though these stories are told and shown more personally than the Pixar films of the past, some of the studio’s universal themes still shine through. Any of us can relate to Turning Red. I mean, we all go through some form of puberty at some point in our lives. But the personal touches to these stories are what has made them so successful and so different from Pixar’s earlier releases. Personally, I think that Pixar should keep practicing personal storytelling in their films. It gives a new heart to the stories being shown and opens up for more diversity in film and animation.