Critique: "Turning Red" is a charming release from Pixar that causes "teenage panda-monium."
After a night of disturbing dreams, Meilin Lee, 13, wakes up to find herself transformed into a giant red panda in her bed. The panda is a lovable ball of scarlet fluff with pointy white ears and a long, bushy tail. Not only will Mei's efforts to cover up the fact that she has become a huge, stinky, unruly monster in the space of one night be undermined by that tail, but the truth itself will be exposed. To paraphrase a similarly furry creature from "Antichrist," a less kid-friendly film about female sexuality and its discontents, chaos has reigned. As the latest merchandising boon for the Walt Disney Co., Mei's panda persona may be an adorable oversized plush toy. ) but she's also a fantastic metaphor for menstruation.
That's not to say "Turning Red," a movie with a cheeky title that sometimes plays like "Carrie" with the cutes or "The Joy Luck Club" meets "Ginger Snaps," only deals in metaphor. This charming comic fantasy, premiering this week on Disney but sadly not in theaters, is something of a messy pubescent milestone after decades of Disney animated entertainments that thrive on the emotions (but not the effluvia) of young women. It's the first film of its genre to feature sanitary napkins as a major plot point, and that's just one of its many firsts. It's also the first book I can think of with a Chinese Canadian female protagonist who obsesses over a boy band, keeps a Tamagotchi (it's set in the early 2000s), and maintains a perfect 4.0 grade point average. While Mei may twerk, she works just as hard. Domee Shi, who won an Oscar for her delicious short "Bao" in 2018, directs the film, making history as the first female director of a Pixar feature.
That's a depressing gender norm, and while I applaud "Turning Red's" efforts to break down cultural barriers, I think we should be wary of praising a corporation that has historically been more eager to pat itself on the back than to adapt. Nonetheless, as Mei (delightfully voiced by Rosalie Chiang) exclaims, "Nothing stays the same forever" — not staid film studios and especially not prepubescent women. Mei is a round-glassed, garlic-bulb-nosed eighth grader who is on the cusp of profound personal growth when we first meet her. She has been the picture of obedient daughter for the past 13 years, spending her time helping her parents run their ancestral temple in Toronto's Chinatown. But her enthusiasm for pop culture, intense crushes, and supercool friends are increasingly at odds with her perfect-daughter devotion. (Ava Morse, Maitreyi Ramakrishnan, and Hyein Park provide the voices of her fantastic trio of best friends. )
So it's no surprise that Mei is embarrassed by the panda-fied version of herself that she discovers upon waking for the first time. Having faith in the power of its hormonal subtext and our familiarity with the wacky story logic of the Pixar universe, "Turning Red" has a lot of fun withholding explanations for what is happening to Mei. The panda serves as a clever symbol of both teenage awkwardness and the family's Chinese heritage, much like the color red has many meanings. Mei's panda form is triggered by strong emotions, but she can prevent it by maintaining her composure. The overbearing Ming (a fantastic and unmistakable Sandra Oh) and the sensitive, hands-off Orion (played by Lee) have spent years teaching her to repress, repress, repress.
Ming wouldn't say that she's overprotective because she monitors her daughter's schoolwork and extracurricular activities so closely and thinks that the world outside her door is full of harmful influences. Shi and her co-writer, Julia Cho, play deftly with, if sometimes exaggerate, the figure of the Asian tiger mom, pushing Ming to a ridiculous comic extreme early on when she publicly humiliates Mei due to a misunderstanding. In that moment, which exists in the murky middle ground between reality and stereotyping, you might scoff or wince (as I did). You may also recognize the cultural context that gives Mei's shame such an individual quality. Every day, helicopter parents and defiant children come to blows, but Ming's Chinese heritage and subsequent label as "psycho mom" pack an especially painful punch.
The immense pressure Mei feels to keep her worlds separate drives the busy narrative machinery in "Turning Red," which also features the fanciful, farcical complications you might recognize from other Pixar movies (supernatural twists, clever coincidences). In this context, the difficulties of physical adaptation and cultural integration merge into a single perilous whole. When Mei first introduces her panda avatar to her classmates, she is surprised to learn that they may not find it strange at all, and may even think it's the coolest thing ever. The big red monster, along with her zany personality and raging libido, must be tamed at home.
This, of course, necessitates minimizing her love for 4*Town, a boy band whose gyrating pelvises and muddled punctuation are clearly inspired by 'N Sync (N*Sync). *NSYNC ) at the height of its popularity in the early 2000s A poorly timed 4*Town concert plays a significant role in the plot, and the band's songs are velvety earworms of the highest order; these details are probably not too spoilery. Songs by Billie Eilish and Finneas; score by Ludwig Göransson There's a nice balance in "Turning Red" between the lyricism of ancient Chinese legend and the synthesized creaminess of teeny-bopper pop that's quite enjoyable.
However, Shi's project is not tangentially related to the deliberate blending of Eastern and Western traditions. The panda-like proportions of Mei's pet and the oval shape of her human toothy grin both hint at the influence of Hayao Miyazaki, an inspiration for many Pixar artists. Happy times spent by Mei and her friends in a time before Snapchat are reminiscent of the rainbow and glitter aesthetics of purikura photo booths. (Abby, one of these pals, makes me think of an earlier, more cartoonish time in anime character design. The climactic action sequences are reminiscent of classic kaiju films, while the more lyrical moments, such as a dreamlike interlude in a bamboo forest and a scene of Mei's panda leaping over the moonlit rooftops of Toronto, are reminiscent of classic wuxia epics.
The familiar Disney/Pixar themes of independence and the value of feeling and letting go of control have been repurposed from these rich cultural underpinnings. The ending could be a rejoinder to — or a confirmation of — that passage from Amy Chua’s “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother” in which she specifically derided the Disney-movie tradition where “the ‘good’ daughter always has to have a breakdown and realize that life is not all about following rules and winning prizes Of course, many Disney films also feature villainous mothers or at least stepmothers, a stereotype that is subtly subverted in "Turning Red." Ming's extreme anger is portrayed as both villainous and vulnerable, suggesting that mothers and daughters, good, bad, and mostly in between, exist on a shared moral, cultural, and generational continuum.
Plenty of room for contention exists there. Pixar has the standard inherent contradiction of being run by some of the most conceited control freaks in the business, despite its repeated exhortations that we should abandon the pursuit of perfection. That is largely meant as a compliment, albeit one with caveats on my part. In its eagerness to clean up its own impressively messy emotions in the final stretch, "Turning Red" falls short of the catharsis it's aiming for, but it's still a delight and one that I suspect can be played over and over again with no loss of enjoyment. The best grade we can give it is a B+. Even though Mei's mom and my own would disagree, most people would probably call that a rave.
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