Director: Domee Shi
Writers: Julia Cho and Domee Shi
Stars: Rosalie Chang, Sandra Oh, Ava Morse
Synopsis: A 13-year-old girl named Mei Lee turns into a giant red panda whenever she gets too excited.
Turning Red is an unusual departure for the Pixar brand. Pixar is a studio that is known for perfecting high comedy and poignant storytelling. It can be downright goofy- which isn’t a Disney Pun. It’s a wildly unconventional film that’s a giant metaphor for the trials and tribulations of a young girl going through puberty. But also, one who happens to be Chinese-Canadian from first generation immigrants.
Set in Canada’s largest city, Toronto, which happens to have a large and vibrant Asian population that started in the 1870s, Turning Red focuses on a 13-year-old precocious student named Meilin (Rosalie Chiang) or “Mei” for short. A driven, stellar student who also loves the boy band 4*Town. Though, love may be an understatement. Think of how your kids or even you acted during the prime days of NSYNC, The Jonas Brothers, One Direction, and now, BTS. Along with her friends, the tomboy Miriam (Ava Morse), the quiet Priya (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan), and the intensely friendly Abby (Hyein Park).Her parents, Ming (Sandra Oh) and Jin (Orion Lee) run the oldest Buddhist temple in the city.
A beautiful one, covered in rich red and blue colors equipped with a large grotto. You can tell Mei has inherited many of her mother’s traits (or has them instilled in her). Strong-willed, determined, and driven to succeed, Mei can achieve anything she puts her mind to. Well, that’s until she starts to become distracted by boys. One, in particular behind a counter, and all five of the 4*Town members (yes, there are five of them). As her emotions become more robust, they consume her thoughts, and how does the young girl handle it? Well, she turns into a giant red panda bear.
You read that right. And it’s a delightful device to move and tell an adorable story of not only blossoming maturity, but as a teenager with a unique cultural perspective. This is the first Pixar film set in Canada, believe it or not. Also, the first is where the lead character is of Asian descent. Not to mention the first film with an Asian character since Up. While this view is much lighter than I am making it here, it’s a refreshing change of pace. Even each character is voiced, when appropriate, by someone of East Asian descent.
What Turning Red does so well, besides when Mei begins to feel her emotions and the fire fox comes out, is the overall feel when Mei is with her family or her social support system. Oh’s Ming is a helicopter mother who doesn’t understand her daughter’s likes—representing a conflict between immigrants and their children’s possible pluralistic view with parental socialization. Yet, there is a wonderful sense of love and preparation when they sit down at the dinner table. You watch as her father prepares baozi with her favorite filling—the deference for respecting your elders and community inside the temple and out.
When Mei is with her friends, she has a different side. The film isn’t afraid to shy away from modern social constructs. Such as all four young women, most from different backgrounds, coming together because of music. This all results in a support system even outside of her family that fulfills a different need. These are all products of growing up and a new reset of social behavior.
That’s where Bao director Domee Shi’s animated film comes together. Co-written with playwright Julia Cho (Fringe, Big Love), they use both sides to view Mei’s quick and random emotions, strong and intense, while going through puberty, delicately. And it would have to since I would not have imagined a Pixar animated movie tackling this subject matter. (It may be the first Disney animated film that shows menstrual products). Yet, even if the metaphor is obvious, it’s handled with such clever and adorable care. The two lenses to view the stage in a young person’s life give added context and depth to go along with your usual well-placed heart and comedy (Park’s Abby had me in stitches).
While Turning Red is more refreshing than most Pixar films (you have to love the use of one of Toronto’s most important buildings in its final act), I will say the movie lacks an emotional punch that the studio is known for. Otherwise, the film flirted with other comparable studio films, like Illumination, that became sterile. Though, Shi and Cho never let it get there.
Still, the result is a Pixar film with an energized spirit, along with a gentle and patient heart.