Pixar has always been able to take on weighty, serious subject and somehow make it a fun, humorous family entertainment. This time, filmmaker Domee Shi takes on a theme of teen puberty and the journey of self discovery. As a Southeast Asian-born critic, naturally it’s wonderful to see part of myself represented in Turning Red‘s characters who like me, also have to balance two worlds of East and West as I navigate life living as an immigrant in the Western Hemisphere. Set in Toronto, the confident and adorkable Mei balances life as a dutiful daughter at home, schoolwork and fun times with her besties Miriam, Abby and Priya.
Ahhh the awkward pre-teen years… that’s been over 3 decades ago for me but it’s definitely a time that still makes me smile AND grimace. I certainly can relate to Meilin (nicknamed Mei Mei), what with her chubby cheeks, glasses, love for doodling and predilection for a certain boy band. The 4*Town for me was New Kids On The Blog (also with 5 all-boy members), the boy band I was obsessed with when I was 13, exactly the age Mei is in the film. I can also relate to her in terms of her overbearing mother Ming, as I grew up with a strict grandmother as a parental figure, which adds a wrinkle to an already chaotic life as an adolescence when I was just discovering myself and my body. Growing up sure is a beast, and in this case Mei has to deal with an actual furry beast… as she turns into a giant red panda whenever she gets excited.
Reading articles about Turning Red, it’s apparent that the filmmakers uses the red panda allegory to depicts teen puberty and the dreaded menstrual period and hormonal issues that’s part of teen life. Shi, who wrote the screenplay with Julia Cho based on a story by Cho and Sarah Streicher, tackles on such delicate subject rarely featured on screen with sensitivity and sense of humor. Right from the start, I was immediately taken by Mei and her friends. Their shenanigans make me feel a bit nostalgic about my own teen years and of course their fan-girling over the cute boy at the mart and the 4*Town boy band get me chuckling.
Shi is a former Pixar intern who has won an Oscar i animated short for Bao (that explains the number of mouth-watering wontons being featured in this movie!). As the first Asian woman to direct a Pixar feature-length movie, I love that Shi uses this opportunity to display a positive representation of the Asian community. The overbearing mother might seem like a cliché but it’s definitely something me and most of my Asian friends can relate to. It’s also cool to see a gentle portrayal of a father in Mei’s dad; he is the chef of the family and a supportive parent without smothering his daughter.
Of course, the representation factor alone doesn’t make a good movie, but Shi infuses the movie with everything one wants to see in a Pixar film. As one of the few Pixar films with human protagonists, it explores complex emotions and the core truth about being human during a crucial part of our lives. Wanting to be obedient to our parents without losing out on the things we care about is something I had a tough time balancing as a teen, which is captured perfectly here in Mei’s journey. The supernatural aspect about her family ancestors’ mythical connection with the red panda is fantastical, but also in line with the superstitious nature of Chinese culture and belief system.
But just because it’s set within a specific ethnic culture, it doesn’t mean the film is limited in scope. I mean, Pixar has made movies about ants, rats, toys, monsters, fish, etc. that are hugely relatable to global audiences. There is always something relatable about its characters that people from various ethnic backgrounds of all ages can empathize with and this one is no different even though it’s about a Chinese-Canadian pre-teen girl. I’m speaking for myself anyway, because as an Asian person who grew up watching Hollywood films, it’s natural for me to relate to people who don’t look at all like me.
In any case, the voice cast is fantastic! I LOVE Rosalie Chiang as Mei, definitely one of my new favorite Pixar characters with an exuberant, lively personality and infectious energy. Sandra Oh is no stranger to voicing Disney films (this is her fourth) and she’s so perfect as Mei’s mother Ming. The rest of the diverse voice cast include Hyein Park (Abby), Maitreyi Ramakrishnan (Priya), Ava Morse (Miriam), and Tristan Allerick Chen (Tyler) as Mei’s school mates. I could watch a spinoff movie of Mei and her three friends as they’re all so unbelievably adorable.
Animation technology has certainly come a long way as I’m constantly in awe of how gorgeous and amazingly detailed the visual is. All the scenes when Mei turns into a red panda is thrilling and so fun to watch. The look of the characters alone is such a feast for the eyes… their faces are so expressive that makes the characters journey all the more moving and affecting. Not to mention the stunning look of Toronto itself that makes the story come alive, especially in the scene where the character jumps around on rooftops at night which is just glorious to behold. I have to mention the fantastic score by Ludwig Göransson, his first foray into scoring an animated feature film. I also love the music from Billie Eilish and Finneas, and the latter also voiced one of the 4*Town band member. Even the band hit song Nobody Like U is quite catchy and I find myself singing along with it, ahah.
Pixar is back in top form once again in its 25th feature film, after a mild disappointment of Luca last year which I think is fun but not as substantial in terms of plot and emotional resonance compared to most of Pixar movies. I’m glad a movie like Turning Red exists and I hope there will be more and more Asian representation in the world of animation and beyond. On top of the positive reinforcements about body positivity and embracing one’s own uniqueness, this is such a fun, joyful movie for adults and kids alike. I just saw this yesterday and have since been rewatching clips of it, so I know it’s a movie I can enjoy again and again years to come.
Have you seen Turning Red? What did YOU think?