Movie Review: ‘Turning Red’

Director: Domee Shi

Cast: Rosalie Chiang, Sandra Oh, Ava Morse, Maitreyi Ramakrishnan, Hyein Park, Orion Lee, Wai Ching Ho, James Hong

Plot: Mei is an overachieving 13 year old who splits her time between school and working at the family temple. Mei and her friends are dedicated fans of boyband 4*Town, and dream of seeing them live in concert. This, and Mei’s life in general, when the family curse of being transformed into a giant red panda during heightened emotional moments takes hold.

Review: If there’s one aspect of animated film-making that Pixar consistently does better than Disney, it’s the creation of realistic young characters dealing with familiar issues even in a fantastical setting. Whilst the setting may be a bit cheesy, and the characters a bit cliched, the way these one characters deal with their problems and respond to their family issues manages to ring true. It was most notable in Inside Out, and they’ve done this again with Turning Red, a thematically similar film.

Mei (Chiang) is every bit a child of the late 90s/early 2000s era. Whilst this setting isn’t the focus of the film, there’s a massive amount of detail and consideration given to the styles and attitudes that dominated the era. Everything from Mei’s tamagotchi to the freaking out over boybands – and the boyband themselves – adds a pleasant nostalgic gaze for parents of the target audience. The boyband ‘4*Town’ is so convincing we did a quick check online to make sure they were made up for the movie. It’s a nice talking point for us and our young people. Also, our daughter wants a tamagotchi now. Hopefully Disney put out some panda themed ones.

Although Mei is very much an overachiever, she feels that she has to keep some aspects of her life hidden from her strict mother Ming Lee (Oh). Ming is deeply protective of Mei, and intrudes on her life to embarrass her by confronting boys she doesn’t trust, friends she sees as a bad influence and any issues at school. As a result, Mei leads two lives separating her friends and home-life. At the onset of puberty, however, Mei finds that any powerful emotional reaction can result is a sudden, magical transformation into a gigantic red panda. Being the result of a family curse, Mei has to keep a lid on this problem until the red moon, wherein a ritual can be conducted to dispel the panda.

Instead of laying low, Mei works to control her emotional responses and starts to use the red panda transformation to her advantage. She begins posing for photographs and selling red panda merchandise to her classmates to raise money for the upcoming 4*Town concert. This brings Mei’s commitments to her family and their traditions into conflict with her growing individual identity. Like Disney’s recent hit Encanto, there is no overarching villain to be defeated but the complex relationships between family members. At the end of the day it is empathy and communication that brings the characters together rather than a grand gesture. It’s a refreshing change of direction for the company, and this is a great example of this stronger form of storytelling.

No review at this point should miss out of the great controversy surrounding this movie. You may or may not have heard but this movie features such shocking and disgusting topics as mensuration and puberty! Heavens above, a movie about girls in high school dealing with such matters, what on Earth are they thinking. If this is something you feel is unsuitable for your children – as though hiding their biology from them will somehow protect them from sinful thoughts – then it is up to you as a parent to pre-view and monitor your child’s entertainment. Each person’s sensibilities are their own, and calling for some kind of boycott or removal of the film from streaming services is silly. Learning about pads is not going to traumatise anyone.

We’re not sure why Disney is relegating the current crop of Pixar movies to streaming services rather than major cinematic releases. Turning Red has a strong emotional resonance, whilst also being fun and upbeat. With such a broad appeal, we feel that this could have done well on the big screen. As it stands, we strongly recommend taking the time to watch this one with your family.

Review: NINE out of TEN