Turning Red (2022) Review!!

Synopsis – A 13-year-old girl turns into a giant red panda whenever she gets too excited.

My Take – Belonging to an Indian family myself, living in abroad in the Middle East, I wholly recognize the stereotypes that have been so notoriously associated among Asian immigrant families all over the world. From the foreshadowing of overbearing responsibilities, to the instillation of fear in upholding centuries old societal and cultural traditions, to the shame caused upon for failing to deliver perfection, especially in education, I too went through it all.

So it is easy to imagine how this latest from Pixar, a studio that doesn’t tire of making excellent animated features, hit home run for me. Filled with all the essential elements we have come to expect, while also striking out on its own in refreshing ways never seen before, this one is yet another winner for the Disney-Pixar combo.

Directed and co-written by Domee Shi in her feature-length debut, following her Oscar winning short ‘Bao’, and based on her own upbringing in Canada, the film is a vibrant and funny story that tackles well the themes of a coming-of-age story with enough depth and is backed by a slim runtime that ensures it does not overstay its welcome.

Sure, it is far from the best Pixar film (I think the Toy Story films still deserve that crown), especially due to its familiar approach, yet director Shi, along with co-writer Julia Cho (Fringe) deserve all praise for giving us an endearingly comical exploration of a teen girl’s journey navigating every messy bit of entering adolescence.

Most importantly, it deserves applause for diversifying the kind of coming-of-age stories so often depicted in films and other mediums, making this one a deeply personal picture for most.

Set in 2002, the story follows Meilin “Mei” Lee (voiced by Rosalie Chiang), an awkward, yet unabashedly confident 13-year-old Chinese Canadian girl, who lives to serve her parents and make them proud, especially her overbearing mother, Ming (voiced by Sandra Oh), who has made sure that she stays focused on her school work and is not distracted by any other useless interest like boys.

Mei’s chief responsibility is to help maintain the local Chinese temple that is dedicated to their ancestors, and conduct entertaining tours for tourists. However, her world is quickly turned upside down when she wakes up from an anxiety induced nightmare and finds herself turned into a giant red panda.

Turning further distressed upon finding out that this is a trait from her side of the family, which can only be contained by a ritual, Mei leans on her friends Miriam (voiced by Ava Morse), Priya (voiced by Maitreyi Ramakrishnan), and Abby (voiced by Hyein Park) to embrace the changes she finds herself going through, even when Mei begins to realize living her truth recklessly as way to see her favorite boy band might unleash a familial fury like she’s never seen. Putting her in awkward state to choose between who she is with her friends versus the perfect daughter she is at home.

The film is as hilarious as it is poignant, and it features beautiful animation along with some terrific voice acting from a diverse cast. Perhaps above all, though, it is fearless in its approach on focusing the story on the Mei’s transition into puberty, covering everything from periods to a sudden interest in boys. The unfamiliarity and her freaking out from her body changing makes it easy to empathize with Mei’s plight.

Although it provides some of the film’s memorable comedic moments, it also brings a relatable plot device rarely used in modern animated cinema to the point that even younger audiences can resonate with Mei’s angst.

For most of us, especially Asians, it would probably seem, uncomfortably realistic. Especially since Ming is stern and overprotective, and her affection for her daughter can be smothering.

The mother-daughter relationship between Mei and Ming is dysfunctional at best and often hilarious, but it is also unconditionally supportive. The same can be said with Mei’s best friends, who act as her confidantes and a source of comfort that emboldens her to break out of her shell and be herself – panda or no panda.

It’s especially refreshing to see such a portrait of friendship, and also acknowledge that overbearing parents can cause stress, no matter how caring they might be. Mei learns that by letting go of the perfect kid syndrome and wallowing in her messy self, she can truly discover who she is as a young person. Sure, there are a few tiny missteps in the film, but as a whole, the film succeeds in hitting all the right emotional notes, all backed by fantastic animation.

Here, director Shi incorporates a gorgeous blend of animation styles, including intricate and detailed visuals with anime-inspired touches that reinforce the film’s Asian roots and elevate its deadpan comedic moments. There’s also excellent use of fluffy things, while wisely straying away from the overused trope of dragons in Asian-led cinema.

Of course, it also helps that the film is backed by an incredible voice cast led by Rosalie Chiang and Sandra Oh, and is excellently supported by Ava Morse, Hyein Park, Maitreyi Ramakrishnan, Orion Lee, Wai Ching Ho, Tristan Allerick Chen, James Hong, Addie Chandler, Sasha Roiz, Lily Sanfelippo, Lori Tan Chinn, Lillian Lim, Sherry Cola, Mia Tagano, Finneas, Jordan Fisher, Topher Ngo, Josh Levi, and Grayson Villanueva. On the whole, ‘Turning Red’ is a vibrant, empathetic animated adventure that funny, poignant and heart rending.

Directed –

Starring (voices of) – Sandra Oh, Rosalie Chiang, Maitreyi Ramakrishnan

Rated – PG

Run Time – 100 minutes

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