Disney/Pixar’s film about the struggles of early adolescence is an absolute delight, and a brilliant directorial debut from Domee Shi.
Turning Red tells the story of Meilin “Mei” Lee (Rosalie Chiang), a thirteen-year-old girl growing up in Toronto, who, on top of having to deal with the arduous time of early teenhood, must navigate a family curse that makes her turn into a red panda every time she feels strong emotions. The film is directed by Domee Shi, and is produced by Disney/Pixar.
While Pixar has a strong track record of strong animated films, Turning Red breaks the boundaries of any film previously produced by the studio. It offers a fresh and honest look at the struggles of early teenhood and puberty, in a way that is relatable to older audiences while still being simple enough for young audiences to follow. Mei faces all the same issues any thirteen-year-old girl would: debilitating crushes, obsessions with boybands, overbearing parents- all issues that are hard enough, with or without a propensity to turn into a giant red panda. However, the addition of the red panda element adds a level of humor and fun that serves as a good metaphor to the ever changing emotions of teenagers, while still providing another layer to the Mei’s character development, aside from mere teen angst.
Furthermore, this film is a very raw take on mother/daughter relationships. Mei’s ultimate struggle is rooted in her constant need to appease her mother, Ming (Sandra Oh, whose performance in this film is equal parts hilarious and vulnerable). Mei’s struggles with her mother reach a tipping point, when the tensions between the two ultimately lead Ming to bring out her “inner panda,” and the only way to resolve the issue for both is for Mei and Ming to have an honest heart-to-heart. It is a scene that is equal parts heartbreaking and heartwarming, as Mei confesses that she worries her recent journey through self-discovery will “take her away” from her mother. Ming realizes that Mei has become her own person, and that she fallen into the same trap with Mei as she feels her mother did with her. Ultimately, the two’s relationship is stronger and healthier with the realization that it is okay for Mei to have her own identity outside of being “the perfect daughter.”
While Shi, who co-wrote the story of Turning Red, has spoken about the connection between complicated parental relationships and the negative affects of parental pressure from a cultural standpoint, particularly within Asian culture, this is a moment that can have a profound impact on anyone. However, this movie brilliantly brings a lot of Asian culture to light, and the influence of such is beautifully apparent. From the family traditions that Mei explains to the references of Asian cuisine to the nods throughout the film to chibi art throughout the film, this movie provides a wonderful offering of Asian representation.
Turning Red also showcases a brilliant voice cast. Chiang makes an impressive major motion picture debut, as her performance as Mei strikes a perfect balance of adolescent naivety and sensitivity. Sandra Oh is the bright star of this film, bringing a level of humor to her performance that keeps Ming from ever being too antagonizing, as she constantly hovers over Mei’s every move. Ava Morse, Maitreyi Ramakrishnan, and Hyein Park also stand out as Mei’s friends, Miriam, Oriya, and Abby.
Setting this film in 2002 also provides for a copious amount of early 2000s nostalgia, and the incorporation of 4*Town, the boy band that Mei and her friends are infatuated with is incredibly fun. 4*Town’s signature song, “Nobody Like U,” written by Billie Eilish and Finneas O’Connell, is frankly worthy of an Oscar nomination for Best Original Song. The music in this movie manages to capture the essence of the bubblegum pop of the early 2000s, with a level of self-aware humor that is incredibly entertaining.
Ultimately, Turning Red is a great addition to the Pixar cannon, and one that deserved a theatrical release (arguably more so than Pixar’s other film to come out this year). The discourse around the movie’s honest take at puberty through the eyes of a young girl (periods are openly mentioned in this film! Be warned and grow up!) was certainly at the forefront of conversations around this film’s release, which is incredibly unfortunate, as it took away from the representation this film provides. Furthermore, Turning Red not only serves as Shi’s directorial debut, but also the sole Pixar film to be directed solely by a woman. It is always unfortunate when the optics of politics of a film (which, in a situation like this, is not even warranted) overshadow the positive strides that it makes.
However, Turning Red suggests a promising directorial career for Shi, and those who are mature enough to look past the discomfort around openly talking about female experiences should enjoy it.
Likely: Best Animated Feature
Should be Considered: Best Original Song (Nobody Like U)
Where to Watch: Disney+
Lives in NC, where she is on a first name basis with the owners of her favorite pho spot.
Favorite Actress: Angela Bassett