Film Review – Turning Red
Disney/Pixar’s latest animated offering, Turning Red (2022) is a candy colored, pop-infused adventure. It continues the studio’s streak of family oriented fun while highlighting more serious, adult-centered issues. The approach has solidified to the point that each film has become a variation of the same themes. Characters coming of age, learning to be their own person, and embracing empathy for others are mainstay attributes of a “Pixar Movie” – the difference is a matter of perspective. Luckily, this production has the nuance to make these elements feel fresh and new. There’s a reason the studio has become the powerhouse entity of the animated world, and they prove it once again here.
Directed by Domee Shi (who also cowrites with Julia Cho), the story centers around Mei (Rosalie Chiang) a thirteen-year-old Chinese Canadian girl living in Toronto. Mei is an overachiever. When she is not studying to maintain her good grades, she is helping her mother Ming (Sandra Oh) run their family’s temple. Mei has a close-knit group of friends comprising of Miriam (Ava Morse), Priya (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan), and Abby (Hyein Park). Their biggest obsession is with the boy band 4*Town, and their collective dream is to attend the group’s upcoming concert. Unfortunately, Ming finds her daughter’s friends and 4*Town to be bad influences. Ming forbids Mei from going to the concert, as she believes it will negatively impact her studies.
Oh, did I also mention that Mei can turn into a big, furry, red panda? We learn that Mei is descended from a long line of women who have been granted the gift (curse?) of turning into a panda when their emotions run out of control. This proves to be a major problem for our young protagonist. Being thirteen – right when puberty strikes – is tough enough for a person to handle their newly raging hormones and developing bodies. Mei must also deal with transforming into a mystical creature whenever she gets too angry or excited. Will she be able to suppress her emotions and prevent the panda from resurfacing? Will she able to win her mother’s approval? And most importantly: Will she make it to the concert?
Shi’s narrative covers a lot of ground. She juggles many topics, some better than others. One of the stronger aspects is how she subverts certain Asian stereotypes. The false belief of Asians being the “perfect” students, or of Asian parents being strict and demanding are upended here. While Mei and Ming start out in these roles, the writing and direction balance them with dimension. Mei’s desire to please her mother is contrasted with the affection she has for her friends and the wish to be her own person. For Ming, the toughness she puts upon her daughter is based on her own upbringing. The way she hovers over Mei’s every move (to the point of embarrassment) operates as a strength and weakness. The narrative lets us know that if it weren’t for Ming’s constant authority, Mei would not be the successful student that she is. However, it is also the reason Mei wants to break out of her mother’s grasp and control her own life.
A lot of effort is put into idea that our emotions (especially for youngsters) are not something we should be ashamed of but should acknowledge. It’s healthier for a person to express their feelings constructively as opposed to suppressing them. While this is an understandable sentiment, the film is oddly wishy washy about it. The women in Mei’s family have worked to hide their inner pandas in fear that letting them loose could cause irrevocable harm. There are sequences where we see Mei’s panda on the verge of massive destruction. In a film that tries to teach us about managing our emotions, the panda allegory is half-baked. Inside Out (2015) took similar themes and explored them in unique and interesting ways. Turning Red leaves a lot of questions unanswered. Was it wrong for Mei’s ancestors to do what they did to keep their communities safe? Should they have let their inner pandas out and let destiny take its course, regardless of the outcome? Is the film saying that it’s ok for some people to express their feelings but not for others? The messaging is strangely unclear.
In terms of execution, the production enacts a cute, bubbly tone. Elements of Japanese anime, K-pop, and Asian soap operas all play as active ingredients. When Mei and her friends see a cute boy, their vision gets bombarded underneath a hazy pink glow. When they’re overcome with joy or happiness, their eyes bulge out and shimmer. In the scene where they devise a scheme to earn enough money to go to the concert, their eyes literally turn into dollar signs. These details are fun in their own way, but some might find it a little overbearing. The pacing – particularly during comedic scenes and action sequences – have a jittery, hyperactive style. Just like The Mitchells vs. the Machines (2021), Turning Red moves at a breakneck speed, with the punchlines coming in one right after the other. While this approach works given context of the story, it is a lot to take in. Kids may love it; parents may experience sensory overload.
Although not without its minor shortcomings, I was won over by Turning Red‘s enthusiasm and earnest nature. It embraces its eccentricities and quirkiness wholeheartedly, even if it acts like it’s hopped up on too much sugar. It has plenty of entertainment value and the ambition to cover important issues as well. This is an easily likeable experience – it’ll be hard to find another movie this year as adorable.