Posted in 2020-2029, Film Review

Turning Red (2022)

© Disney and Pixar Animation Studios

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.

Posted in 2020-2029, Film Review

Raya and the Last Dragon (2021)

Image is property of Disney Animation Studios

Raya and the Last Dragon – Film Review

Cast: Kelly Marie Tran, Awkwafina, Gemma Chan, Daniel Dae Kim, Sandra Oh, Benedict Wong, Izaac Wang, Thalia Tran, Alan Tudyk

Directors: Don Hall and Carlos López Estrada

Synopsis: In the ancient land that was once known as Kumandra, a warrior princess goes in search of what is believed to be the last dragon….

Review: Throughout the many decades of animated films to emerge from Walt Disney Animation Studios, stories of fairy tales and Princesses have been plentiful. It is after all, one of the many things that they do best. The early Disney Princess stories might have leaned into the more traditional aspects of fairytales and princesses. Yet, from the Renaissance years onwards, the studio’s Disney Princess outings have all had an element of striving to something that does not stick to the norm, and breaks substantial new ground in terms of story-telling and representation. With what is their 59th film, they’ve taken a massive step forward in terms of representation by creating for the very first time, a South-East Asian heroine.

Many centuries ago, in the land of Kumandra, humanity and dragons co-existed in harmony. However, when the land comes under attack from a vicious evil spirt known as the Druun, an all powerful artefact that repels the Druun is created to repel them forever. Flash forward to the present, and with the dragons now believed to be long gone, the people are now divided into five warring tribes, all seeking possession of this artefact. When the conflict boils over, and this deadly evil spirit returns, the burden falls on Raya’s shoulders to seek out the Last Dragon, before this evil spirit consumes the entire world as they know it.

It’s practicality a formality that whenever one comes to watch an animated film from the House of Mouse, that the animation is going to be the best that it could possibly be. It is to the immense credit of the animators, that not only is the animation absolute breath-taking to look at, but it seems to be somehow getting even better with each passing film. For each territory of this civilisation, there’s a considerable change in the terrain, and this shift provides numerous opportunities for the animators to explore the richness and the diversity of the terrain. Through their wonderful work, they do not disappoint as each territory enables the animators to demonstrate their animation wizardry, which helps to bring so much vividness and beauty to this world.

After having endured an absolutely ridiculous and completely undeserved amount of flak for her work in the Star Wars franchise, seeing Kelly Marie Tran given a leading role as a Disney Princess is just wonderful, and she absolutely crushes it with her performance as Raya. Through her excellent voice work, she imbues this character with a sense of courage, honour, and duty to her family and her people. While this may all be familiar beats for a Disney film, what Raya also has in her favour is that she is a fearless warrior who boasts excellent skills with a sword, which should ensure Raya adds her name to the ever growing list of fierce, strong and badass heroines that Disney films have produced.

Alongside her, Awkwafina, an actress who has been excelling in recent years, almost steals the show as the voice of the dragon Sisu. Being the last of her kind, there’s an understandable element of seriousness given how integral this character is to the film’s story. However, the film’s script by Qui Nguyen and Adele Lim, allows Awkwafina to use her comedic talents to wonderful effect, and through the voice talents of both actresses, the characters form a deep bond that helps to drive the film forward. Furthermore, the cast is further enhanced with excellent contributions from the talents of Gemma Chan, Sandra Oh, Benedict Wong, and Alan Tudyk as Tuk Tuk, one of the most adorable animal side characters this studio has ever created.

The film can sometimes get a bit bogged down by the sheer amount of lore and backstory that it tries to fill in its runtime. While there’s some familiarity with some of the story’s beats, the film packs plenty of heart and emotional weight. In many ways, Raya and The Last Dragon is a film that feels tailor made for these divisive and troubled times that the world has been living through for the last year or so. As a society that feels broken, bereft of trust and compassion for those around us, as we collectively struggle to deal with a crisis that has shaken society to its very core, leaving a heart-breaking amount of pain, and loss in its wake. In the year 2021, the world could learn a thing or two from a hero like Raya.

Bursting with gorgeous, colourful animation, and a ground-breaking Warrior Princess heroine, Raya and The Last Dragon is another House of Mouse gem that feels tailor-made for the times we’re living in.