Turning Red – Film Review
Cast: Rosalie Chiang, Sandra Oh, Ava Morse, Maitreyi Ramakrishnan, Hyein Park, Orion Lee, Wai Ching Ho, James Hong
Director: Domee Shi
Synopsis: The life of 13-year-old girl life is turned upside down when she discovers that whenever she experiences increased levels of emotion, she turns into a giant red panda…
Review: No matter who you are, growing up is tough. Making that transition from childhood to those teenage years, there is an awful lot to contend with. There are changes to your body that you’ve got to contend with, but also changes to your life as you take on increased responsibilities and gradually gain more and more independence from your parents as the years go by. Pixar Animation Studios have often enjoyed phenomenal success in exploring some of the many changes that life throws at us, such as moving house, the loss of a loved one or the massive existential question of what we were put on this Earth to do. The studio’s 25th feature film doesn’t quite go that existential, but it explores a beast that we all have to contend with at some point in our lives.
The year is 2002 and Meilin “Mei” Lee (Chang) is a bright and determined 13-year-old living in Toronto. She excels in school, gets top grades and has a great group of friends. As it is the early 2000s, the boyband craze is thriving as Mei and her friends share a deep and passionate adoration for popular boyband 4*Town. Despite being a very confident and outgoing person, Mei is experiencing a substantial internal conflict, in that she wants to be herself, but her mother Ming’s (Sandra Oh) expectations of her to be the perfect daughter give her considerable anxiety, to the extent that she has to hide certain aspects of her personality. On the cusp of those chaotic teenage years, Meilin realises that whenever she experiences a heightened state of emotion, be it positive or negative, she turns into a giant, fluffy red panda.
Coming-of-age stories have often explored the concept of puberty, but it is so often from the perspective of male characters. Therefore, it is extremely refreshing to see this topic approached entirely from the perspective of a female character, particularly because there’s still a bizarre stigma when it comes to the topics of periods and menstruation, which is completely absurd. However, this isn’t to say that the film is exclusively aimed at women and girls, because as they so often do, Pixar give their films a universal appeal. What makes Domee Shi and Julia Chao’s screenplay so effective to appeal to a universal audience, irrespective of gender, is the thorough examination of the changes that go on in your life when puberty strikes, and we make that transition from childhood into your utterly mental teenage years.
These are years which can be completely chaotic and full of awkward interactions, as you begin to potentially form the friendships you hope to make for life. It’s the time in your life when you find yourself wanting to rebel more and more against your parents. Whether you begin to develop feelings for someone or take up a new hobby, above all, these are the years where your life really begins to take shape as you become your own person. Rosalie Chiang’s brilliant voice performance encapsulates this perfectly. She thinks knows herself and her personality (at least until the transformation into the red panda enters the picture) and that puts her on a direct collision course with her mother. Ming struggles to accept that Mei is not the perfect daughter that Ming wants her to be.
Having won an Oscar for the adorable short film Bao, becoming the first woman to direct a short for Pixar in the process, Domee Shi continues her trailblazing legacy by becoming the first woman to solely direct a feature-length film for the studio. The quality of the animation never disappoints when it comes to Pixar, with the scenes involving the red panda transformations being particular standouts. However, the visuals have an unmistakable anime inspiration to them, which in turn helps give them a certain visual uniqueness that’s unlike anything else in the studio’s catalogue. Pixar films can so often reduce the audience to blubbering messes. Their latest doesn’t have that emotional gut-punching moment, but it took a risk by tackling subject matter that’s still weirdly taboo in the hope of eliminating that stigma, which deserves to be celebrated.
A hilarious and heartfelt tribute to those chaotic pre-teenage years. Breaking new ground in its approach with its approach to its subject matter ensures that Turning Red is a furry triumph for Domee Shi and Pixar.