Film

Turning Red

In the magical land of 2002 Toronto, Mei (Rosalie Chiang) is a 13 year old 8th Grader who excels at her studies and is subservient to her mother

Turning Red is a high energy, magical comedic fantasy movie with some distinctly Canadian and T.Dot flourishes. It takes a bit from Brave, a previous Pixar film involving a young redhead prodigy and magical bear transformation, but it also throws in a lot of early 2000s stuff, Tamagotchi and boy bands abound and the Rogers Centre is properly still the SkyDome. And there’s also a bit of The Incredible Hulk, Encanto, and giant Godzilla movie monster action. The central puberty metaphor is about as subtle as a brick to the face but it keeps things zippy with lots of fun throughout.
In the magical land of 2002 Toronto, Mei (Rosalie Chiang) is a 13 year old 8th Grader who excels at her studies and is subservient to her mother, Ming (Sandra Oh). After being embarrassed by her mom publicly in front of a boy she is crushing on, Mei wakes up as a giant Red Panda. Her mother tells her that the women of their family are afflicted with a curse that when they come of a certain age they transform into a giant panda when their emotions get heightened, but a ritual can sever Mei from the panda. When Mei’s grandma Wu (Wai Ching Ho) and the extended family comes to town to settle Mei’s transformations, Mei is gutted at her inability to go see the boy band 4*Town in concert. Mei has to finally stand up for herself against her mom but if she doesn’t do it quickly, she’ll be stuck transforming into a giant Red Panda forever.
The magic rules are a bit wishy-washy and overly complex. The giant transforming Panda basically follows Hulk rules; if she gets agitated, she’ll transform. Then they throw in a few other curveballs, like the Panda spirit can be cast out into a totem, but if it breaks free then people will turn back into a Red Panda. The women of the family can confront their Red Panda in the spirit world which makes for some cool visuals and a surprisingly emotional scene when Mei finds the adolescent spirit of her mother. It isn’t exactly explained but it works on a dramatic level. The Red Panda is an ancient curse their ancestors made to protect them was also in the recent Disney animated film Encanto. The random rules  do pay off in the end with another character unexpectedly transforming into a giant panda which is so large and trashes the SkyDome like Godzilla.
This is definitely set in the time and place of 2002 Toronto. It may be a bit confusing to people who haven’t been in the area as all the Toronto references are thrown around freely. There’s many shots of downtown T.O. with the CN Tower above it all, and even Mei is shown jumping on top of the red TTC streetcars. Also, accurately, the SkyDome is still called the SkyDome as it was bought out by Rogers two years later. Considering the SkyDome ends up getting thrashed in a giant Red Panda Brawl at the end, in the Pixar universe that may be the reason it was sold.
Emotionally, the film is about a young girl going through puberty and the physical changes are represented by turning into a Panda uncontrollably as she sobs about the changes to her body. As far as metaphors go, it’s kind of unsubtle. The mom seeks to control all aspects of Mei’s life, and the power struggle between the two really works well as the overbearing mother basically is the villain. She’s not over the top evil; she’s just refusing to let her kid grow. When she finds doodles in Mei’s notebook she assumes that a local register vendor is hitting on her girl, which is really embarrassing for Mei as her mom rips on the clerk in front of everyone. This boils over in the finale when Mei in her Red Panda form hollers loudly “I’m 13, deal with it!” By this point, the mother has also turned into a giant Panda threatening to overtake Mei’s life which makes the confrontation complicated.
Chiang as Mei has a very energetic performance with crazy hollering as she ping-pongs through various emotions. One of the best bits is when she’s babbling at a rapid fire pace about what to do after her mom outs her to the boy she has a crush on and the animation in this scene is hilarious as Mei jumps around the room, alternatively sobbing and screaming into her pillow. She has a crew of friends who each have a distinct personality quirk, the quiet one, the loud one and so on, and they’re good for a few gags. Oh as the mom also has motor mouthed rants as she can go from soothing to overbearing in an instant. As the grandma, Ho has a deliberately paced line-delivery that makes her sound like an intimidating mastermind.
Turning Red is an expressive and funny movie with spectacular animated flourishes. It’s nicely tuned into the place where it is set gives it a distinctive feel. It may make its point rather loudly but it’s a story about puberty via a giant red rampaging panda. It’s only natural that things tend to get loud.
Turning Red
4 stars
Director: Domee Shi
Starring: Rosalie Chiang, Sandra Oh, Ava Morse, Hyein Park, Maitreyi Ramakrishnan, Orion Lee, Wai Ching Ho, Tristan Allerick Chen and James Hong

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