In the opening minutes of the coming-of-age fantasy Turning Red, I was crushed by the stomach-pit realization that the movie was Not For Me. Overwhelmed by the sugar-rush hijinks of the soon-to-be-ursine heroine introducing all of her goofball friends & personality quirks in rapid, smooth-surface CG animation, I nearly ejected the DVD and rushed it back to the library in panicked defeat. I’m mostly glad I stuck it out. I understand that Pixar is respected as the current high standard of children’s media, but I’m too disconnected from the comedic sensibilities & visual artistry of modern computer animation to distinguish the gold from the pyrite. It all looks & feels the same. Still, I did appreciate Turning Red as life-lesson messaging for little kids, who are ostensibly Pixar’s target audience even if they’re not the pundits tweeting hyperbolic praise for the studio. The last couple Disney animations I remember watching (Coco & Encanto) taught kids to obey & forgive Family at their own expense; Turning Red directly conflicts that poisonous wisdom, encouraging children to rebel & grow into their own individual selves no matter how uncomfortable it makes their parents. It also frankly discusses menstruation and the other bodily changes of puberty, which feels remarkable & commendable for a film with such a young target audience (even if they’re discussed through the same talking-animal fantasy device that accounts for most modern mainstream animation). Both of these life lessons—that your personal autonomy & chosen community matter more than your family’s wishes and that the daily functions of your body are nothing to be ashamed of—inspired mini online nontroversies among Conservative parents when the film first hit Disney+ a couple months ago, which is how I know that it’s a special work even though it superficially resembles so much mediocre #content in the same medium. Turning Red might not be For Me, but I respect that it’s a genuine good in the lives & brains of the young people whom it is for.
I normally wouldn’t criticize a film I didn’t expect to enjoy from the outset, but there is one moment from Turning Red that has stuck with me in the way it recalls the premise of a recent film that was For Me. Throughout Turning Red, a 13-year-old mama’s girl struggles to distinguish her own personality from the expectations of her supportive but overbearing mother, an already complex dynamic that’s further complicated by both the mother & daughter transforming into gigantic red pandas when they get too emotional. Within their climactic panda fight that threatens to destroy downtown Toronto (or at least ruin a well-attended boy band concert in downtown Toronto), they finally connect on an intimate, honest level – meeting in a calm, psychic space represented by a dense forest. In that forest, the daughter encounters a younger version of her mother when she was 13 and emotionally struggling, comforting her until she regresses from her angry panda state. That moment is strikingly similar to the latest Céline Sciamma picture Petite Maman, in which an 8 year old girl meets & comforts the 8 year old version of her own mother in the woods behind the mother’s childhood home. The mother-daughter dynamic in Sciamma’s film is more distanced than combative, but the conflict is resolved in the exact same way first-time director Domee Shi approaches it in Turning Red. If I were a more well-rounded audience (or, more likely, if I were just a parent), I’d be able to enjoy Turning Red & Petite Maman as unlikely sister films that happened to approach generational bonding & maternal conflict through a similar time-travel fantasy device. Instead, that momentary flash of Petite Maman-style calm in Turning Red only further contrasted Shi’s style against Sciamma’s in my mind, and it only made it clearer that my preferences are heavily weighted to the serener end of that scale.
Petite Maman is quietly magical & emotionally complex. It’s not Sciamma’s best, but it does touch on everything that makes her work great (especially the observational childhood growing pains of Water Lilies, Tomboy, Girlhood, and My Life as a Zucchini, as well as the tragic limitations of time in Portrait of a Lady on Fire) without ever making a big show of it. While Turning Red frantically runs in circles making sure every image & moment is exciting! wacky! and fun!, Petite Maman isn’t in a rush to say or do anything. A young girl magically time-travels to become close friends with a younger version of her mother, but the resulting events of that miracle aren’t especially flashy nor thrilling: play acting, making crepes, having a sleepover, decorating a tree house, etc. I’m not saying that low-key, understated approach is inherently better or more virtuous than the frantic talking-animal hijinks of Turning Red; it just happens to be my tempo. That’s likely because it calls back to a calmer style of live-action children’s media from my youth like The Secret Garden, A Little Princess, and The Secret of Roan Inish that doesn’t have many modern equivalents in a post-Pixar world. It’s funny that the one moment when Turning Red slows down to match that tempo, it happens to depict a scene straight out of the woodland mother-child time travel premise of Petite Maman. I don’t know that most kids would have the patience to sit with that quiet, unrushed magic while reading subtitled dialogue for the length of a feature film (only a slim 73 minutes in Petite Maman‘s case), but it’s nice to know that it still exists somewhere in modern mainstream children’s media, even if only for a brief reprieve.
There is no reason to pit these two movies about magical mother-daughter relationship repair against each other. Even Céline Sciamma sees the value in Domee Shi’s more chaotic, hyperstimulating storytelling style. In a recent LA Times interview, Sciamma acknowledges that “Pixar’s latest resonates with Petite Maman as a part of a matriarchal mythology finally coming to fruition in cinema as more women are able to tell their own stories.” She says, “A film about the libido of kids is so politically bold. And [Turning Red is] so tender in the release it gives to kids about friendship, about their hearts. It’s an important film. If I had seen it at 10 years old, it would have been my favorite film. I would have been obsessed with it. […] I’ve already seen it three times. I keep telling people to watch it, especially if you have a kid in your life.” Personally, I’m surprised that I made it through Turning Red just the once, but I do agree that its political boldness & emotional tenderness is commendable. That same interview also notes that Sciamma’s film almost resembled Turning Red even more, explaining, “Initially Sciamma was certain Petite Maman should be an animated feature. The locations and otherworldly aspects, she believed, would lend them to be hand-drawn. Also, she thought, an animated version could prove more democratic for children if dubbed to avoid subtitles.” I’m glad that she backed away from the animation sphere, even though it would have been more accessible to younger audiences. Not only does Sciamma’s insistence that Petite Maman works better as a tangible “ghost story with real bodies” ring true, but if there were a hand-drawn animated feature out around the same time as the sugary CG hijinks of Turning Red, I would have been a much, much harsher in my contrarian comparisons of their merits & themes. I should likely stop trying to see the magic most audiences see in Pixar, since I’m just not getting it, but if Sciamma is among its enthusiasts, the problem must be with my eyes & ears, not the content.