"...the broadness of anime to the usual bitter sweetness of a Pixar production"

Puberty Panda-Monium

(041422) Pixar Animation has never strictly targeted children with their movies, but they’ve made a noticeable move to more adult fare in recent years, hoping to challenge family audiences with deeper dramatic offerings and more sophisticated writing. For “Turning Red,” the company takes a look at the unpredictability of adolescence, targeting the early teen years with a tale about a 13-year-old girl who’s transitioning to maturity via full-body red panda breakouts. “Turning Red” will have younger viewers asking a few questions about the demands of puberty, but Pixar keeps matters appreciable with a fantasy tale of giant animal transformation, parenthood, and friendship, with director Domee Shi bringing the broadness of anime to the usual bitter sweetness of a Pixar production.

Mei (Rosalie Chiang) is a 13-year-old girl living in Toronto, enjoying a happy life with her best friends, Miriam (Ava Morse), Priya (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan), and Abby (Hyein Park), and excelling at school. Mei is obedient to her mother, Ming (Sandra Oh), an overprotective parent keeping a close eye on her daughter, refusing to let her experience anything that she hasn’t already approved. Mei and her pals are super fans of the boy band 4-Town, with the group making a tour stop in Canada, and standing in the way of such bliss is the arrival of a family curse, with Mei feeling new emotions for the first time, triggering a full-body change into a giant red panda. At first unaware of what’s happening, the teen panics, learning that peace of mind makes the fur disappear, while Ming explains the history behind the curse, which can be reversed with a ritual occurring during a red moon. This wait forces the child to live with her strangeness for four weeks, navigating school and friendship with her new secret.

Mei has a beaming personality, fueled by adolescent enthusiasm for the joys in her life, which include school success and partnership with her top “besties,” forming a team with Abby, Priya, and Miriam, helping to support hallway honor as bullies, such as Tyler (Tristan Allerick Chen), seek to bring them down. Shi creates a vivid understanding of personality and pure teen hype for daily achievements, and Lee provides a perfect vocal interpretation of such energy, helping to bring Mei to life. The character is less confident around her mother, finding Ming controlling, but habitually so, trying to become the parent she was taught to be, making sure her child excels academically and behaves accordingly, keeping her responsible around the family business, which involves management of a Chinese temple. “Turning Red” doesn’t depict Ming as frosty to her daughter, just rigid in her expectations, which keeps Mei in line as she enters her teenage years. Ming is the new Marlin, but this Nemo is different, with maturity playing a pivotal role in “Turning Red.”

The screenplay (by Shi and Julia Cho) targets Mei’s awakening, which begins as a gentle refusal of cute boys becomes something to obsess over, while fandom of 4-Town reaches new peaks of excitement, making the concert a must-do event. Mei also explodes into the body of a red panda, left with nothing but questions as she struggles to manage her secret development, which Ming initially believes is her daughter wrestling with menstruation. An answer soon arrives with the tale of Sun Yee, an ancestor who transformed emotional power into red panda form, giving Mei one option to break the curse, participating in a ritual. “Turning Red” sets a goal in this red moon event, but follows the main character as she gets used to her new body, feeling love and support from her friends, and the gang learns to monetize the situation, giving classmates a chance to take a picture with Mei, helping the team earn cash for their hotly anticipated 4-Town explosion.

“Turning Red” is cartoonish at times, with Shi adding anime touches to the feature, which works to celebrate teen fervor. Asian culture emerges in different ways in the movie as well, which is also mindful of keeping the situation as emotionally real as possible, exploring the tentative process of teen rebellion and the thin-ice experience of mother/daughter bonds during the first steps of this tumultuous event. Pixar Formula isn’t denied, inspiring a flatter final act with more pronounced fantasy detours, including time inside the “astral realm.” The picture does rebound with a return to intimate emotions with a specific situation of newfound independence, which will likely hit certain viewers in a profound way. “Turning Red” has a lot of laughs, gorgeous animation, and an outstanding voice cast, but as the best Pixar films do, it finds a way to address specific feelings and human events in a way no other production team even attempts to do anymore.

Directed by:  

 Domee Shi
Written by:    Screenplay by: Julia Cho & Domee Shi. Based on
 a story by: Domee Shi, Julia Cho & Sarah
Starring the Voices Of:     Rosalie Chiang, Sandra Oh, Ava Morse
Released:     031122 (USA)
Length:     99 minutes
Rating:     Rated PG for thematic material, suggestive
 content and language

TURNING RED © 2022 Walt Disney Pictures
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Review © 2023 Alternate Reality, Inc.