It’s unclear why Disney decides to premiere some of their new films in theaters (like Encanto) while others debut on the streaming service Disney+. This sends some speculation that perhaps some of their films are not “good enough” to perform well at the box office and therefore are relegated straight to the at-home service, not unlike former straight-to-video flicks. That certainly isn’t the case with Pixar’s Turning Red which currently holds an astounding 95% “fresh” rating with critics on Rotten Tomatoes. (The audience score is little lower holding at 72%.) Most critics, including this one, find this coming-of-age to be as charming as many of Disney’s other great films.
Turning Red is one that breaks a lot of rules and is different on almost every level. Unlike films like Tangled, Onward, Frozen or even Toy Story, Turning Red’s story doesn’t take place in a mythical world. It is centered on the very real city of Toronto, Canada. The animation style is much more “cartoony” and inspired by manga. The main character’s parents are both alive and living in the same home. It also features a mythical boy band and it is the first to mention tampons or pads!
Director Domee Shi is known for her Oscar-winning Pixar short film Bao where a woman making dumplings finds that one is alive and she decides to raise it as her own child. It is a metaphor for the relationship between a mother and son. According to Disney, when asked why the dumpling character was male, Shi responded with “It would take a whole feature to unpack the mother-daughter relationship.” It also became her pitch to make Turning Red where, in her opinion, the mother-daughter relationship is a lot more complicated.
With the screenplay written by Julia Cho (and inspired by her own daughter) this original movie introduces newly 13-year-old Meilin Lee (Rosalie Chiang). She is goofy, she has a solid group of friends at school, gets consistent good grades, is a hard-worker at her family’s Chinese temple and loves to please her parents. She is essentially the perfect child until one morning she wakes up as a giant, fluffy red panda. Though her transformation is real, the storyline is a metaphor for the changes one makes during adolescence. As it turns out, when Mei is calm, she can control the beast. But when she becomes stressed or has strong feelings about something, the big creature comes alive. It’s a scary time for her.
Mei wants to honor her mother, but she also wants to go to a concert to see the hit boy band, 4 Town (Jordan Fisher, Finneas O’Connell, Topher Ngo, Grayson Villanueva and Josh Levi) with her friends Miriam (Ava Morse) Abby (Hyein Park) and Priya (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan). Of course, none of the moms are crazy about their middle schoolers going to the concert, and tell them no. So the girls do the mature thing and make plans to attend the concert behind their moms’ backs. What could go wrong?
Turning Red is also about Mei’s mom, Ming (Sandra Oh, who has never been funnier) who is distressed on how her perfect little girl is suddenly interested in strange music and boys. Out of her love for her only child and wanting to protect her at every turn, Ming is overbearing. The result is a number of hilarious and embarrassing moments between Mei and Ming.
As it turns out, this circle of life doesn’t end there. Although mature and poised, Ming still has a few issues with her own mother (Wai Ching Ho), who shows up with Ming’s sisters to help with this new crisis. Meanwhile, Mei’ dad, Jin (Orion Lee) appears to stay out of harm’s way and not get involved, but he offers some good advice and conversation to his daughter as well. He is sort of the middle ground of this family dynamic.
Unlike other Disney or Pixar films, Turning Red feels a little off balanced. Almost all of the characters in the story are female. The only two male characters are Mei’s quiet father and Tyler (Tristan Allerick Chen) the school bully. Men and boys watching the film might think that they will not be able to relate to the female-driven story, but there are universal themes that everyone will be able to relate to. It never really feels as if you are watching a “chick flick.”
A word of caution though. Some the images featured in the film, though clever, might induce nightmares with younger viewers. And I would wait to show this film to your children until you are ready to have “the talk” with them. Or at least watch it by yourself first to be better prepared on how to answer some of the embarrassing questions that are sure to be raised.
As for me, I could have done without some of the boy band stuff and the climax of the story gets to be pretty over-the-top and loud. But what I found to be annoying is that Mei is portrayed as a “good girl” but when she starts to embrace some of the red panda in her, it is described as her “finding her true self” as if one can’t be their “true self” and “good” kid at the same time. They aren’t polar opposites. I don’t think that was the intention of the filmmakers, but it does come across as such. I also found the use of the line, “My panda, my choice mom” to be questionable as well. Overall though, Turning Red is more than a “kids” movie that can be enjoyed by anyone who has ever been a kid.
Main Image: Disney/Pixar
I write about pop culture, arts and entertainment in the greater Seattle area.