Turning Red (2022)

Pixar’s latest is the story of thirteen-year-old Meilin, a Chinese-Canadian girl who discovers that she has the ability (or curse, depending on how you look at it) to turn into a giant red panda whenever she experiences strong emotions.

I thought it was a good, solid outing from Pixar. But it oddly didn’t move me the way the early Pixar stories did, and I can’t say I want to watch it multiple times. Nevertheless, it’s a movie I would recommend on the whole.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Pros

  • The pacing is good. The story moves along briskly and there was almost no drag in it.
  • The emotional core of the story is something that many women can relate to, and the red panda being a not-so-subtle metaphor for periods and puberty was a pretty clever idea! The movie was directed by Domee Shi, whose previous directing credit was on the Pixar short, Bao, which was very funny and emotional. I think she brings that sensibility to Turning Red (even though I feel the short had far stronger emotional beats). Should be interesting to see what else she continues to do for Pixar.
  • Shi’s personal experiences came through very strongly in the details of the movie – the TV show that Meilin watches with her mom is obviously based on TVB dramas, Meilin’s grandmother and aunts are totally caricatures of the stereotypical Chinese “aunty,” etc. I may not be Chinese-Canadian, but even as a Chinese-Malaysian I felt the cultural truth of some of those details. haha
  • They weren’t afraid to depict teenage girls as looking like, well, teenage girls. Meilin does not look like a stereotypical teenager-as-played-by-an-adult, and neither do her three friends. The most common adjective I may have heard and read about their designs is that they look “dorky,” which I think is quite an accurate descriptor. It seems to be a generally well-received choice, so kudos the design team for going in that direction!
  • While I was never a boy band fan in my teens and thus have relatively limited knowledge about them, the portrayal of 4*Town and their music seemed pretty accurate and that was fun. (The multiracial make-up of the group was not accurate to the nineties, of course, but I don’t begrudge the filmmakers that artistic liberty since the ethnicity of the boy band members doesn’t really matter to the story.)
  • It was nice that on the whole Meilin has a good relationship with her family. This isn’t one of those stories where she secretly hates her mom or dad or is always fighting with them or something. Meilin does have a good family life, and she also makes the effort to try and convince her parents to let her attend the 4*Town concert in a way that they might find more convinving (though her elaborate presentation doesn’t work).

Cons

  • I thought the climax was a rather… Silly? Not the even-more-gigantic Red Panda-Mom chasing Meilin down at the 4*Town concert, but the bit where for no apparent reason the boy band emerges and decides to join in on the priest’s chanting but with their own song…??? That felt really odd and unearned. Why did 4*Town suddenly join in? Did it even help, and how?? Maybe the idea was that if we all help each other, that’s all that matters? Or something. I don’t know.
  • Pixar movies often have a very sober, deeply emotional moment. (Their early ones did, anyway.) This one did not have that for me. It did get close – the part where Meilin helps her mother reconcile old hurts with her grandmother was quite emotional – but on the whole, it didn’t pack an emotional punch for me. Perhaps this is partly because I was not at all boy band-crazy in my teens so not all Meilin’s problems resonated with me in the way that it seems to have resonated with some of my other friends. (I was about twenty when I first took a real interest in a boy band, and that was the J-pop group Arashi.)

Misc.

  • It’s amusing that no one ever seems to question Meilin’s ability to turn into a red panda. All the kids at school seem to regard her red panda form as a large teddy bear and no one ever questions it or is afraid of her until she lunges at Tyler when he insults her family.
  • I did wonder if the portrayal mystical, pseudo-Taoist/Buddhist trappings of Meilin’s family “religion” would result in people criticising the movie for exoticising the East. But there’s been very little in the way of such criticism as far as I’ve seen. Perhaps it’s mitigated by the fact that the director herself is of Asian descent and that this story is very much rooted in her own childhood growing up in Canada. (This always makes me think that a good chunk of society has decided that creators can only ever create art that is based directly on their own cultures or experiences. Try something that is not seen as a part of your “identity” and you’ll be staring a social media mob in the face.)

Got anything to add or say? :D