Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | March 11th, 2022
Turning Red (Domee Shi, 2022) 3 out of 4 stars.
Though conventional in its coming-of-age, learning-to-love-yourself structure and message—par for the course from both Disney and Pixar—Domee Shi’s debut feature, Turning Red, offers a plethora of other innovative delights that distinguishes it from predecessors. With its focus on a young Asian woman entering puberty (think about the many possible meanings of the title), the effects of such hormonal changes on the body, and the societal and familial structures in place to limit discussion of those effects, the movie becomes something unique in the annals of Hollywood animation, exploring themes almost always left untouched. Add a cute furry creature who makes everyone’s heart melt, and there is a lot to recommend.
Young Meilin—or “Mei,” as friends and family call her—is on the cusp of something new, though she doesn’t quite know it yet. A dutiful daughter who helps her mother maintain the family temple that doubles as a tourist attraction in their home city of Toronto, she is beginning to feel the twinges of teenage rebelliousness. She and her three besties rule the 8th grade, or at least they act like they do, no matter how their classmates might feel. Content in the world they have created, they moon after 4Town, the latest boy band (the year is 2002), and wonder how to get tickets to an upcoming concert.
And then there’s the kid who works at the local deli, whose attractions prove initially elusive to our protagonist, until one night she suddenly gets it in a blaze of hormonal passion, scribbling drawings to express her newfound feelings. When her mother finds the sketches, the ensuing embarrassment, including a confrontation at the deli and more (it gets bad), sends Mei into a paroxysm of the worst humiliation she could imagine. Angry, upset, mortified, and everything in between, she wakes up the next day and is quite literally no longer herself. She has, in fact, “turned red,” becoming a large red panda (her family’s spirit animal, marked throughout the temple). Now that was unexpected!
Or was it? As the story progresses, we learn more about Mei’s family history, featuring a long lineage of powerful women who struggle to fit in and temper their instincts. The red panda is but a stage to go through, after which adulthood beckons and rash childhood impulses are left behind. But should they be, and are they always rash? That is the question the film asks, along with its exploration of female agency and self-acceptance. Buried within the finely tuned protocols of the pedestrian three-act screenplay, therefore, are some pretty deep thoughts.
The animated images are sharp and colorful (Shi directed the Oscar-winning short film, Bao), referencing Chinese culture in a Disney/Pixar setting, and the voice talent is excellent. There’s Rosalie Chiang, as Mei, supported by the likes of Sandra Oh (Hulu’s Killing Eve), Orion Lee (First Cow), James Hong (Dropa), and more. The boy-band material is hilarious, as is the gang-of-four middle-school girl crew. And that panda is just so darn adorable. As everyone else in the movie says, repeatedly, “Awwwwwwww …”