Director: Domee Shi
Writers: Domee Shi, Julia Cho, Sarah Streicher
Stars: Rosalie Chiang, Sandra Oh, Ava Morse
Turning Red 2022 is a American computer-animated coming-of-age comedy fantasy film produced by Pixar Animation movie Studios and distributed by Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures. It is directed by Domee Shi in her feature directorial debut, from a screenplay written by herself and Julia Cho. The film stars the voices of Rosalie Chiang, Sandra Oh, Ava Morse, Maitreyi Ramakrishnan, Hyein Park, Orion Lee, Wai Ching Ho, Tristan Allerick Chen, and James Hong.
It is the first Pixar film directed solely by a woman, the first to take place in Canada, and the second to feature an Asian lead character after Up. The film is Pixar’s 25th feature film. A quirky Asian teen transforms into a giant red panda whenever she gets excited… even the premise gives me pause. Which makes the task of reviewing the new Disney/Pixar movie “Turning Red” especially tricky. Because that’s the idea behind this sometimes poignant but whimsical coming-of-age film, which walks the line between faithfully representing a Chinese family, flaws and all, and pandering to stereotypes.
Meilin Lee is a typical 13-year-old: she dances, has a crush on boys, and has a cohort of strange but loyal best friends who share her obsession with the bright-lipped members of boy band 4. Town. She is also Chinese Canadian and lives in Toronto in 2002, where her family maintains a temple. There she helps her loving but overbearing mother, Ming, and tries to be her perfect daughter, even when it means burying her own thoughts and desires in the process. This becomes much more difficult when she goes through her changes, not of the period variety, but of the panda type.
The writing and character design is where “Turning Red,” directed by Domee Shi, is most successful. Mei has the relatable swagger of the cool high school nerd: she’s creative and confident, and she also has a perfect report card. Tomboy skater Miriam, deadpan Priya, and hilariously hot Abby form a funky trifecta of friends who are Mei’s emotional safety net. And Ming strikes an impressive balance between dictatorial and caring, dismissing Mei’s friends and interests but also hounding her at school to harass her with steamed buns.
Shi finds subtle but effective ways to illustrate the personalities of even supporting characters, from the rigidly applied makeup of Mei’s grandmother (Ho-Wai Ching) to the extravagant open shoes of the gang of aunts who follow Grandma Lee. And the animation of Mei’s hair in her panda form, how she lays flat when she’s calm or stands up when she’s angry, reinforces her emotional swings.
This is where “Turning Red” gets tricky: Although the red panda magic of the plot is rooted in the cultural traditions of its characters, these details are not enough to absolve the film of its version of exoticism for children. After all, her characters benefit from Mei’s cute and weird transformation.
And when it comes to the conflict of the film, the antagonists are the women of Mei’s family. Or, more accurately, the suffocating cultural traditions and family expectations that women embody. The fact that Mei’s grandmother gets the kind of somber introductory scene you’d expect from the main boss in a mob movie, and that these women share the red panda’s affliction, means they fall into a formula of cold, emotionless Asian women. . Does the film address the stereotype or fulfill it? The line is too blurry to tell. In the end, a little understanding, empathy, and a pandapocalypse assure us that the stoic Asian ladies are not the source of the problem but also the victims, like Mei. Though I do wonder what the film would look like if the conflict wasn’t portrayed solely in the form of these women.