It’s PANDA-monium in TURNING RED, the latest from Disney and Pixar’s Animation Studios. This vibrant coming-of-age story set in the multicultural backdrop of Toronto, Ontario, in the 2000s certainly has more than a few cringe-worthy moments but is far outweighed by the fun factor and love letter to our teen years and coming-of-age struggles we remember all too well.
Disney and Pixar’s TURNING RED Review
Director and co-writer Domee Shi has created a relatable and lovable story that will warm the hearts of tweens, teens, and parents alike. Mother-daughter relationships in the teen years can be especially complicated.
Disney and Pixar’s TURNING RED shares a tale inspired by Shi’s own childhood and relationship with her mother. It’s a coming-of-age story that anyone can relate to in at least some way, as every single one of us has been a teen growing up, exploring the need to find themselves and their independence while fighting against the parental regime and awkwardness that is a natural part of that hormonal phase—and anyone who claims otherwise is probably a liar.
Like Mei Lee in the movie, Shi is an only child and was always very close with her parents, especially her mother. Shi was born in Chongqing, China, and immigrated to Toronto, Canada, at the age of 2.
In an early press conference with Director Domee Shi and Producer Lindsay Collins, Shi described how she wanted to explore the nuances of an Asian parent-child relationship in dealing with change, intergenerational conflict, and how it can shape who we become. Shi calls the film an “Asian tween fever dream.”
TURNING RED is inspired by the universal struggle of growing up, and figuring out how to handle that push-pull dynamic of honoring your parents while staying true to yourself. For Mei Lee in the movie, the red panda is the magical spark that sets off the internal conflict within herself. After all, “growing up is a beast.”
TURNING RED shows Mei Lee’s transition from confident, dorky 13-year-old torn between staying her mother’s dutiful daughter and the chaos of adolescence. Her protective—and slightly overbearing mother—is never far from her daughter—an unfortunate reality for the teenager. As if changes to her interests, relationships, and body weren’t enough, whenever she gets too excited (which is practically ALWAYS), she “poofs” into a giant red panda!
Shi has more than once said the film isn’t going to shy away from the realities of puberty—and it doesn’t. From getting your period, personal hygiene, and being”randy” as the Brits like to say, this giant red panda metaphor leans heavily into some cringe-worthy places that will make some uncomfortable and others relieved. And what would a Pixar film be without at least a little metaphor?
TURNING RED Review – What works
Vibrant, stunning animation
The visually stunning animation and graphics that Disney and Pixar have become known for are fully embraced and meshed with some classic Japanese anime stylings for emphasis—think “Sailor Moon” Japanese superheroine anime of the 1990s—making TURNING RED visually appealing and uniquely engaging.
The soundtrack is lit
The soundtrack for TURNING RED is baller. The 2000s was the height of the boy band era, and Pixar introduces us to its first imaginary boyband—4*Town. The three all-new exclusive songs featured in the movie are written by GRAMMY-winning singer-songwriters Billie Eilish and FINNEAS.
While boy bands were a big part of Shi’s life and hot in the 2000s, when Pixar first released the trailer, the music choice included The Backstreet Boys’ “Larger Than Life.” The band is synonymous with the LGBTQ+ community’s club life, even though they are not one of the boy bands with openly out members.
Toronto as the backdrop is a multicultural mosaic of beauty
While Shi chose the early 2000s in Toronto as the backdrop of this coming-of-age story in part because she was intimately familiar with it, there are other reasons why Toronto is a great fit as the backdrop for TURNING RED. Toronto is a mosaic of different cultures, languages, and traditions in one city. It’s a beautiful city rich with multiple cultures and in the 2000s it was ripe with teen girl pop music mania, love of boy bands and other pop music idols, and the simplistic pop culture era of flip phones, CDs, jelly bracelets, and MySpace & other early social media.
Teen girls as friends
Thank you, Disney and Pixar for reminding us that not every teen girl is a member of The Plastics in Mean Girls and that there are plenty of solid, kind teenage female friendships. It’s a relief to see healthy female relationships onscreen and not an overplayed trope.
Being uniquely you as a key theme
Embrace your inner panda. We’re here for themes that encourage being yourself, especially when aimed toward the younger crowd and are inclusive. Truly, the vast majority of people don’t want films about white people.
Inclusion of queer themes
Disney and Pixar are far from novel in their inclusion of LGBTQ characters in movies. Generally, we see a subtle nod at best with no direct identifying moments. They have yet to present an explicitly queer story. Luca and the short Out are about as close as we’ve seen; we’re still waiting. However, better than nothing is the fact that some of their more recent films are at least inclusive of themes that create a film where queer people might be able to see themselves, such as with TURNING RED and hints as a metaphor for life with a queer identity without further exploring sexuality or romantic endeavors.
We see Mei struggle with her physical appearance throughout the film, a mix of disgust and fear. She tries to calm herself by brushing her fur in an attempt to return to her human form.
When she goes to school she is wearing a fully buttoned-up cardigan and toque to mask her appearance while her classmates are in t-shirts and unbuttoned layers that are not intended to hide their physical appearances.
Certainly, this movie is generally a movie about cis-puberty, However, you can’t discount the fact that the red panda and related imagery and context allow for a trans interpretation making TURNING RED a potential allegory for trans puberty.
And you can’t discount the fact that in the official trailer, Pixar chose “It’s Gonna Be Me” by *NSYNC. Member Lance Bass is out and *NSYNC music is known to cater to the LGBTQ dance club crowd.
No love interest and no villains
Unlike the formula for most movies, the conflict does not come from an external source such as a villain or love interest. The lack of both is a welcome change from most films and allows it to focus more heavily on the exploration of self.
TURNING RED Review – What doesn’t work
While tween/teen girls are a beast unto themselves (as a mom of three of them, I know) there were definitely some full-on cringeworthy moments in TURNING RED, especially in the earlier part of the film. We’re all for a great coming-of-age movie that embraces all the changes and phases, but TURNING RED really leans into the puberty factor a little heavier than a lot of kids and some parents may be comfortable with.
About TURNING RED
Disney and Pixar’s TURNING RED introduces Mei Lee (voice of Rosalie Chiang), a confident, dorky 13-year-old torn between staying her mother’s dutiful daughter and the chaos of adolescence. Her protective, if not slightly overbearing mother, Ming (voice of Sandra Oh), is never far from her daughter—an unfortunate reality for the teenager
And as if changes to her interests, relationships, and body weren’t enough, whenever she gets too excited (which is practically ALWAYS), she “poofs” into a giant red panda. TURNING RED is directed by Academy Award winner Domee Shi (Pixar short “Bao”) and produced by Lindsey Collins (“Finding Dory”).
Runtime: 100 mins.
Director: Domee Shi
Producer: Lindsey Collins
Screenplay: Julia Cho and Domee Shi
Voice Cast: Rosalie Chiang, Sandra Oh, Orion Lee, Wai Ching Ho, Ava Morse, Maitreyi Ramakrishnan, Hyein Park, Tristan Allerick Chen, Tyler, Addie Chandler, Jordan Fisher, Grayson Villanueva, Josh Levi, Topher Ngo, Finneas O’Connell, James Hong, Lori Tan Chinn, Lillian Lim, Mia Tagano, Sherry Cola, Sasha Roiz, Lily Sanfelippo
Disney and Pixar’s TURNING RED streams exclusively on Disney+ on March 11, 2022.
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