Turning Red (Film Review)

Photo: pixarturningred (Instagram).

Disney and Pixar’s newest film, released on Disney+ on March 11, 2022, tells the story of a boisterous middle-schooler named Mei who happens to be undergoing many changes—some more fantastical than others. Like Mei, the film is bright, colorful, and outrageous, providing a fresh, memorable addition to Pixar’s library.

My Thoughts. Set in a vibrant Toronto, Canada (side note: why aren’t more films based in Toronto?), Turning Red (directed by Domee Shi) takes us back to the 2000s when boy bands ruled the world and when many of us millennials were unknowingly caught in a transitional phase. (The timing couldn’t be better: nostalgia for the early aughts–which, to my chagrin, were not only ten years ago–is at an all-time high.) Mei (Rosalie Chiang) seemingly lives two lives: dutiful daughter at home (and at the family temple where she works as Assistant Temple Keeper), and confident, in-your-face flautist at school. She, along with friends Priya (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan, of Netflix’s Never Have I Ever), Miriam (Ava Morse), and Abby (Hyein Park), are obsessed with 4*Town, a boyband that seems part O-Town and part Backstreet Boys. (Fellow millennials will likely appreciate the use of the “*” in the choice for the boy band’s name, which must be a subtle reference to both B*Witched and A*Teens, two other groups that pumped out sugary-music during those glorious early 00s.) When Mei’s emotions start triggering her to shift into a large Red Panda, she discovers a generational secret that forces her to grapple both with her maturation, and its impact on her relationship with her mother.

At the heart of the film (co-penned by Shi and Julia Cho) is the unique dynamic between a mother and daughter during the inevitable phase when the former must cede control of the latter. Chiang (who revealed to D23 Magazine that she won the actual part after years spent recording the role for the “Scratch Track,” a temporary voice performance of the early script used to develop the story) brings the requisite energy, longing, and sincerity to her role. Sandra Oh delights as Ming (Mei’s mother), capturing a wide-range emotions with both heart and conviction. When speaking of Ming, Oh noted that “Ming is an extremely loving mother whose love is sometimes fraught by her sense of duty and her anxiety.” Red Panda is both a canvas capturing the color-filled emotions experienced by Mei, and also an allegory for the major changes brought by adolescence. In releasing a film confronting these themes, Disney and Pixar tackles subject matter we haven’t otherwise seen from the company in years–with a magical touch, of course. The film’s focus on an Asian family, their culture, and generational dynamics provides a fresh, welcome perspective that is sure to endure for years to come.

Regarding the “controversy” surrounding the film, I find myself annoyed. Of course, the mensuration topic eventually made its way to me (and my wife), despite my attempt to avoid it. We prepared ourselves for whatever was coming our way, but, in my opinion, we prepared ourselves for nothing: Ming’s preparation for her daughter’s mensuration and the allegorical Red Panda are the literal extent of Disney and Pixar’s foray into openly discussing puberty. Yes, some kids are likely to pick up on the fact that Mei is undergoing some very real changes; but is that a bad thing? Absolutely not. Parents should watch films and television episodes before their kids do if they want to shield them from whatever they are worried about. The reality is that young girls are forced to confront their maturity earlier than boys, in a very apparent way, resulting in uncomfortable talks about their new reality. As a father to two young daughters, I am aware of the changes they will confront, and my wife and I are preparing a plan to openly discuss said changes in a positive manner. That Disney and Pixar are so deftly telling this story, on such a large platform, feels monumental; a big step in what appears to be the right direction.

SPOILER ALERT: the following is a detailed description and review of the film.

Photo: Disney.

The film begins with Mei, in fourth-wall-breaking fashion, introducing us to herself, and the plot, queuing up the main theme: the tension between her rapidly emerging individualism and her familial responsibilities. We learn early on that the relationship between her and her mom, Ming (Sandra Oh), is being tested by this tension, providing a glimpse into the seams of their relationship that will later be ripped apart. Soon enough, the schism happens: after Ming discovers Mei’s private fan-fiction style drawings of the cashier at the Daisy Mart, she races to the confront the unwitting cashier with a reluctant Mei in tow. Ming, thinking that the Cashier is preying on Mei, scolds the cashier in front of Mei and some of her contemporaries before slamming the drawings on the counter for all to see. Mei, rightfully mortified, feels everything all at once, and Pixar’s use of color, light, music, and graphics truly make you feel like you, too, are feeling those intense feelings. I think everyone can relate to those intense, inner feelings–hot rage, humiliation, excitement, fear–that burn so bright it feels like everyone can feel it, too; Pixar does a great job of not only visually depicting those emotions, but of confirming what we wish we knew when we were Mei’s age: it’s all in our own head.

Ming’s episode is unsurprisingly the catalyst for Mei’s big change: after a night spent crying she wakes up as a fluffy, confused red panda. In an attempt to avoid being seen, Mei runs to hide in the bathroom. Hearing the commotion Ming thinks that Mei is undergoing a very different change, prompting her to ask: “Did the red peony bloom?” (which, along with film’s other nods to puberty and mensuration, have resulted in the aforementioned controversy). Mei’s parents take two vastly different approaches to this potential change: her father, Jin (Orion Lee), carefully backpedals even further away from a forefront he rarely occupies, while Ming enters the bathroom with a box of pills, pads, and a heating pad at the ready. Mei, ever astute, quickly learns that her feelings are causing her changes, so she finds her Zen to avoid getting caught. But, upon returning to human form, her hair remains a deep red, so she goes to school with a beanie and a secret.

At school, Tyler (an annoying classmate who witnessed The Daisy Mart Incident) plasters one of Mei’s drawings her mother left at the mart on a locker, leading to Mei almost revealing the Red Panda in the hallway. In what is one of the funniest scenes of the movie, Mei is sitting in class when she notices Ming, donning black sunglasses, is outside her classroom peering from behind a tree. As Ming runs from a school employee attempting to shoo her away (“Tell him it’s ME!” she shouts), she does the unthinkable: she yells that Mei forgot her pads, raising a box of pads high enough for her entire class to see. Mei’s embarrassment results in her shifting into the Red Panda right then and there, leaving a cloud of pink dust in her wake. She makes brief eye contact with Ming, who, from outside, seems less surprised than she should be.

Mei then learns the family secret: Sun Lee, her ancestor, during a war long ago asked the gods to give her the power to change into a Red Panda to protect her family. The gods acquiesced, and Sun Lee managed to protect her family and control her Red Panda with her emotions. The ability to change into a Red Panda was passed on to the women in their family (explaining both the temple’s connection to red pandas, and Mei’s new alter ego), who now handle it as just another inconvenience in their lives. Ming tells Mei that she also went through a similar change (albeit at an older age), and that she can cure it by partaking in a ritual at the next Red Moon. That being a month away, Mei has until then to cope with her inner Red Panda before her one chance to cabin her abilities.

Mei is eventually placed in a room that is empty but for her bed. After shifting back and forth uncontrollably, her squad shows up to check on her, and more importantly, tell her that 4*Town is coming to Toronto (!!!). Until that reveal, Mei had kept her Red Panda inside, but her excitement can’t contain it for long, and her friends soon see her as the Red Panda. Of course, they take it in stride, showing an emotional maturity beyond their years. And they know just what to do to make Mei calm down: they sing it out with a 4*Town song. Mei promptly changes back to her human self, and this time, something is different. Around her friends, the Red Panda remains at bay, despite her emotions. Mei then proves to her parents that she can control her Red Panda by passing a series of tests–including a box of adorable kittens. She then puts on a presentation to ask whether she can attend the 4*Town concert. (We all lived the same lives, didn’t we?) But Ming quickly vetoes the idea as too risky. We then get a glimpse into Ming’s relationship with own mother when she reluctantly answers a phone call and learns not only that grandma is aware of Mei’s change—she is on her way to Toronto.

Photo: Disney.

At school the next day, Mei’s friends reveal that their parents also nixed the concert idea. Mei decides that they must go, if only because it’s their first step into womanhood. As the girls plot their way to getting enough money for their tickets they learn that their classmates love Mei’s Red Panda, so they do what any “very enterprising, mildly annoying young lady” (those are Mei’s principal’s words, not mine), would do: they capitalize on Mei’s Red Panda-ness. In a delightful montage that serves as an ode to yesteryear, we see the girls charging for polaroid photos, merch, and access to the Red Panda. We also get cuts to the girls filming themselves dancing to 4*Town on a video camera, in an age before the video could be uploaded within in seconds.

When Tyler blackmails Mei into appearing at his birthday party (to draw crowds), Mei reluctantly agrees, if only to collect the remaining money they need to attend the 4*Town concert. Mei’s grandma then arrives, aunties in tow, to disrupt Mei as she heads to Tyler’s party. Her aunties express surprise at her ability to control her Red Panda, and allude to Ming’s ostensibly uncontrollable Red Panda. Before Mei can sneak to the party, her grandma corners her, letting her now that she is on to her tricks. She warns Mei that changing into the Red Panda too often could make the Red Panda too powerful, potentially leaving Mei bound to it. Her grandma shares that Ming’s Red Panda era forever changed their relationship; as she does so she traces an obvious scar on her eye brow, likely caused by Ming. Mei goes to the party anyway, but, scared to be trapped as a Red Panda forever, she wears a Red Panda cardboard costume that she wears as part of her job at the temple. When Tyler, aghast with her faux-Red Panda, refuses to pay her, her friends realize they won’t be able to attend the concert. Mei, not wanting to let them down, decides to turn into the real Red Panda once more, directly against her grandmother’s warning.

Photo: Disney.

With Destiny’s Child’s Bootylicious as the soundtrack, the party erupts with fun. Mei and her friends sit on a roof top as they fantasize about the concert that is now very much within reach. Mei’s friends tell her that she should consider not participating in the Red Moon Ritual; in their opinion, she’s changed in many ways for the better. As she ruminates on the idea, a radio announcement reveals that 4*Town is coming to Toronto on the 25th—the date of the Red Moon—not the 18th, as Abby told them. (She confused the dates of the Toledo and Toronto concerts.) It’s then that Tyler asks Mei to come down and further entertain the party. When she refuses he insults her, her family, and her temple, resulting in a Red Panda rage that injures Tyler just as Ming arrives at the party. Tyler’s parents are understandably upset, and Ming in turn blames Mei’s friends for her change in behavior. Mei remains silent.

The night of the double header that is the Red Moon and the 4*Town concert arrives, and Mei’s friends attend the concert as a trio. As Mei prepares for her ritual, her dad stumbles upon Mei’s camera, which has footage of her (as the Red Panda) dancing happily along to 4*Town with her friends. When he brings it up to Mei, he reveals that Ming’s Red Panda-era rage stemmed from Ming’s mother’s disapproval of Jin. Jin tells Mei that people have all sides of them, and to not push them away, but instead, make room for them. He admits that the Red Panda side of her made him laugh.

At the Red Moon ritual, Mei decides to hold onto her Red Panda, leaving her family flabbergasted. Mei then races to the concert in Red Panda mode, resulting in Ming releasing her own, very big Red Panda. Mei, assuredly in control of her abilities, runs and flies to the concert where she apologizes to her friends. Her friends quickly accept her apology and return her Tamagotchi n full health. Just before the concert begins the girls spot Tyler in full 4*Town garb—apparently he is a “townie,” too. The music starts, the band members sing and fly with angel wings and the girls live their best lives for one song before Ming’s giant Red Panda crashes the party.

Photo: Disney.

It’s then that mama and daughter Red Pandas finally hash it out. Mei confesses that she was the mastermind behind the concert, before saying perhaps the best line of the movie: “I’m 13! Deal with it.” Jin, along with Mei’s grandma and aunties, arrive in an attempt to stop Ming before the Red Moon recedes and traps Ming in her Red Panda form. Mei, in turn, taunts Ming by gyrating in her face. Mei’s aunties and grandma work to start the ritual, and 4*Town join in on the chant needed to revive Ming, resulting in a chorus loud enough to save her just in time. In a flash, Mei is in the wooded in-between world she formerly inhabited when she decided to keep her Red Panda. She encounters her mother, as a teenager, in tears. Teenage Ming reveals that she lost control and hurt her mother. Mei consoles teenage Ming, and leads her towards their other female family members. Ming, now in adult form, apologizes to her own mother, who tells her she does not need to apologize: she is her mother. Each woman then walks back into a portal as their Red Panda takes their place in the other realm. Before Mei walks through, she admits to her mom that she is scared of the changes that are pulling them apart. Ming tells her that she sees her, and how hard she is on herself. She tells her not to hold back, and that the farther she goes, the prouder she will be. Back in Toronto we learn that people are still talking about Pandapocalypse 2002. Mei coexists with her Red Panda, who makes the temple a large draw. Mei acknowledges that nobody stays the same forever, relishing in the current state of her relationship with her mother, and her decision to let her inner beast be free.

Photo: Disneyplus (Instagram).

Turning Red is now streaming on Disney+.

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