I truly admire that lately Disney and Pixar have taken to taking on stories that are outside their wheelhouse. Culturally, we’ve seen stories from southeast Asia-inspired (Raya and the Last Dragon), Colombia (Encanto), Mexico (Coco), and Coastal Italy (Luca). This film tweaks the expectation of the standard default American setting for Canada. And not just the fact it’s Canada, but about a chinese family in Canada, adding a layer of intricate complexity audiences aren’t used to seeing. Moreover, the cast of characters all seem multiracial as well, from the Korean Abby to Indian Priya, to even a Sikh school security guard. This kind of cultural representation was basically unheard of coming out of American film studios.
Secondly, the kinds of stories being told are diversifying, too. Pixar especially, who got started by banking on our childhood anxiety over the idea of our toys having lives of their own when our backs are turned. Granted, Winnie the Pooh and The Velveteen Rabbit tackled these decades before, but now with so much more depth and nuance and relatability than before. But in recent years, they’ve probed deeper into the human condition and asked some seriously profound questions like “What does it mean to be a toy?” (Toy Story 2), “What does legacy mean for an aging athlete?” (Cars 3), “What lies beyond the veils of birth and death and where do we get our spark?” (Soul), and “How do our emotions dictate who we are?” (Inside Out). It’s these questions that keep Pixar as more than just makers of quality computer animation, but one of the best studios in the world for their quality storytelling.
As we continue to develop stories outside the American cisgender, hetero, caucasian, male, euro-centric tales, we start finding more compelling stories to be told. When it comes to narratives about teenage girls, studios often fall flat on their faces. Not only are not enough women in positions of decision in Hollywood, but the systemic powers that be are convinced stories about teenage girls should be about fashion, music, obsessions with boys, and fitting in, if not altogether vilifying and infantilizing them. But thank goodness we have directors like Domee Shi, who directed the 2018 short Bao, who isn’t afraid to dive into the deeper aspects of growing up as first-generation chinese immigrant girl in the Great White North. I am not any of those things, but a good storyteller can make even this niche narrative speak to me. So does it?
Turn to Toronto and take in this teen’s transformations!
The plot: 13-year-old Meilin “Mei” Lee (Rosalie Chiang) is a good student, quirky, outspoken, and hyper confident. At school and in her social life, Mei has little to stress about. But once she gets home, her mother, Ming, (Sanra Oh) pretty much owns her life in helping maintain the oldest chinese temple in Toronto. It’s normally not a huge issue, but once an errant doodle alarms her mother and causes a scene at the local market, Mei gets a new element to her life added later that night.
Mei awakens to find she has transformed into a 10-foot-tall red panda, a result of a generational gift from an ancient ancestor so when she gets a strong emotion, poof. Only by calming down will she reinstate her human form. She is given the chance to partake in a ritual which will expunge the red panda spirit from her soul, which she decides to go through with next red moon. At the same time, her and her friends’ favorite boy band, 4 Town, is coming and they need to go…but it’s before the ritual. And they need to raise $800 for the tickets. Mei and her friends Miriam (Ava Morse), Priya (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan), and Abby (Hyein Park) decide to capitalize on her ability at school, charging for photo-ops, cuddles, and merchandise. But can Mei keep this all under wraps from her mom, who has taken helicopter parenting to a whole new level?
How’s the writing?: I was fully prepared for a cute story about a young girl who hulked out into a cuddly beast at the slightest stressor, and given the teaser showed her ugly crying, to be about how her hair-trigger emotions made everything unbearable and terrifying. Disney Channel sitcoms basically conditioned me to anticipate stories about girls her age to think every inconvenience is just like, the worst thing EVER, like OMG I’m gonna DIE of embarrassment ‘cuz Trevor didn’t notice me blah blah blah…
What I WASN’T prepared for was a story meant to be an allegory for puberty and a mother-daughter tale fraught with legitimate tension. And it was freaking brilliant.
Well…”allegory” isnt necessarily the word here, as there’s a scene where Ming delicately asks her daughter through the bathroom door if the “red peony” has shown up, and she launches into a flurry of preparation, as any good mother would. Emotionally, though, the red panda form is supposed to be a guardian spirit, which reinforces Mei’s convictions and spikes her more aggressive impulses, as well as emphasizes her anxiety and heartache. And in that way, it’s brilliantly executed. As a man, I can see her emotions and how powerful they feel, rather than just watching another teen wail about how unfair life is because she’s being grounded for lying about a failing grade. It’s like how Zootopia made racism that much easier to understand and digest through predators and prey rather than with humans.
As far as the mother-daughter story goes, I found it much easier to understand than something like Brave, which also used transformation to resolve the dilemma. Brave was much more grounded in reality, and here, the animated, cartoony nature actually makes everything much more visceral. There’s definitely a barrier trying to relate to Elinore and Merida’s relationship as the former is focused on royal duties and the latter whines about freedom. In Turning Red, Ming just seems to want the daughter she knew only days before back, the good grades, the reverence to her culture, and the camaraderie, whereas Mei is dealing with…well, a lot.
Does it give the feels?: Again, through the strife of poofing into a giant floofer, we feel it and we feel it intensely. It’d be terrifying, to say the least, and we see that portrayed pretty powerfully.
Essentially, Mei is alone. Her mom’s high expectations force her into passivity and obedience, and her friends can’t be around all the time. Worse still when her mom makes a scene – like showing her fantasy drawings to a crowded market or shouting to her classroom that she forgot her pads – Mei’s agony is real. You don’t blame her for wanting to exercise a little autonomy.
Ming is not a villain, either. A touch self-important and close-minded, but she doesn’t feel that way. Objectively, she is certainly proactive, as though anticipating her daughter will act against her wishes. Despite her daughter being an excellent scholar and a dutiful student of her ancestry, and watching her daughter keep it together in the most exciting of circumstances…she still lashes out at her daughter for even being interested in the boy band coming to town. So all that being said, we see her true motives surface in act three, and how, like in Encanto, generational trauma was passed down from mother to daughter ad nauseam all the way through Mei. The physical fight between them was revealing, but only when they both see each other in a dream realm do we see the real damage and love between the two.
Who makes it worth it?: Mei and Ming are good characters, but it’s the tertiary characters who make this film gel. Mei’s father, Jin, gets little screentime, but he is so sweet and timid. Supportive of both his daughter and his wife, he toes the line of being a generally patient, kind man who just wants both his daughter and wife happy.
Miriam, Priya, and Abby are HILARIOUS. Priya is permanently laconic and dry, but her dialogue indicates she’s just as enthusiastic about the stuff her friends are into, and her stiff body language is hilarious, particularly during a dodgeball scene. Abby is absolutely nuts without being distracting, and even her tangents where she starts rambling in Korean are just fantastic. Miriam is the straight one, the most loyal and empathetic out of the four, quickest to stand up for her girls and leads the rest (if by mere seconds) in those moments where Mei needs a boost. These are awesome friends and I totally get why Mei loves them so much.
Best quality provided: Before this movie came out, there was a fair amount of vitriol online of people complaining that the character models were ugly and the girls’ behavior was cringeworthy. And to that I say if you’re one of those people, you are an idiot.
Like in Luca, the Pixar team wasn’t going for exaggerated realism, but a very stylized look. I think because we audiences are typically shown teens and even tweens as idealized models and thus it’s kind of jarring to see kids looking like Mei, Miriam, Priya, and Abby. But more importantly, the cartoony, stylized animation was very much a positive aspect of this film, not a negative one.
Multiple times in the movie, Mei and her friends get the anime “giant sparkly eyes” look to sell their sudden and overwhelming joy, which work perfectly with their already caricatured designs. These girls have some seriously potent emotions and every expression is unambiguous, perfectly captured, and insanely accurate. This is, after all, a movie where the main character’s emotional stability threatens the plot at every turn, and instead of some mousey protagonist, we get these girls who wear their emotions on their sleeves…except Priya, but her low-key, monotone expression is the joke in and of itself.
What could have been improved: Toward the end of the movie, Mei’s four aunts and grandmother show up, determined to help the girl in the ritual. Later on, when Ming needs help, the ladies break their talismans and they, too, get their panda spirits reinstated. After she’s rescued, they all return back to our world, once again splicing the red panda spirit out of themselves. As does Ming, again. But I asked myself…why?
Up until the climax, it was generally accepted by the women that the red panda spirit was a part of them they had to get rid of and to retain it was practically unthinkable. But for the first time since, I assume, their teenage years, they accessed their spirits. I had hoped Mei had inspired at least one of them and showed them that being a panda wasn’t so bad and could actually be pretty beneficial, but that wasn’t the case. I think back to Swiss Familtly Robinson, where the movie started with everyone wanting to go back to Switzerland (As you do when you’re marooned), but in the end, only one of the teenaged boys returns, everyone else enamored by their island paradise. But no such revelation came, which might have made it more interesting. Even Ming, where I felt it might have been a lovely moment as Mei could have shown her how to control that side, and the two could bond through this aspect.
I guess I felt it reverted everyone back to the status quo. We already knew Mei would keep her ability. I had just hoped her wanting to retain her gift would have rubbed off on at least one other person.
Verdict: I really appreciate just how fun this movie is. Like Mei, it’s unapologetically intense and unafraid to be a story about growing up. It’s loaded with funny moments and the deeper stuff is concealed under the guise of a body horror comedy. I recommend this to anyone seeking a quality “growing up” story for young ladies as well as a good Mother’s Day movie. I give this one eight Tamagotchis out of ten.
It’s just so fluffy!