Synopsis: A 13-year-old girl named Mei Lee turns into a giant red panda whenever she gets too excited.
Stars: Rosalie Chiang, Sandra Oh, Orion Lee, Wai Ching Ho, Ava Morse, Maitreyi Ramakrishnan, Hyein Park, Tristan Allerick Chen, Tyler, Addie Chandler, Jordan Fisher, Grayson Villanueva, Josh Levi, Topher Ngo, Finneas O’Connell, James Hong, Lori Tan Chinn, Lillian Lim, Mia Tagano, Sherry Cola, Sasha Roiz, Lily Sanfelippo
Director: Domee Shi
Running Length: 100 minutes
TMMM Score: (8.5/10)
Review: Out of necessity in understanding the needs of their target audience during a national health crisis, Walt Disney Studios made a significant change to their release plans for their summer 2021 release Luca by offering it on their streaming service Disney+ instead of in theaters. This strategy allowed families to enjoy the film together at home rather than risk it at the cinema at a time when COVID was still holding the world in a tenuous position. While Disney was no stranger to releasing on this platform, having sent the live-action Mulan and Black Widow straight to streaming, both of those films carried a hefty price tag for the privilege. Luca would be free to subscribers; naturally, the film became a popular title when it came out, at least commercially.
Will anyone be talking about Luca a decade from now, ranking it the same way they do PIXAR’s roster of titles over the years? The pioneering animation studio’s releases used to be somewhat of an event, but with technology advancing, they’re able to turn over their projects much faster than ever. The result is still-gorgeous-looking movies that always retain that particular PIXAR taste but don’t maintain their flavor or shelf-life as long as the older products do. An early January announcement that PIXAR’s March release of Turning Red would also go straight to streaming raised a few eyebrows. Not the least of which because theaters mainly were open and welcoming better box office returns and also because this was one of the company’s first female-centered films in quite a while. And also one of their best.
California-made but Canadian at heart, Turning Red is PIXAR’s most lovingly genuine, funniest film in ages. Sure to hit home big time with mothers and daughters, there’s a timely message for all about being your own person. Directed by Academy Award winner Domee Shi (her short, Bao, won in 2018), who sets the film quite charmingly in 2002 Canada, it’s the story of teenager Mei (Rosalie Chiang) right on the edge of angst as she struggles to find her voice. A dutiful daughter to a quiet father (Orion Lee, Skyfall) and hover mother (Sandra Oh, Tammy), she largely lives to please both of them and stay out of trouble. Yet there’s this well of emotion inside her that seems to keep boiling up and over she frustratingly can’t control.
Adults watching Turning Red can instantly spot what this pre-pubescent teen is heading toward rapidly. We’ve all been there, and recent parents of these teenagers will recognize the signs of puberty rearing their ugly (white)heads before any of us do. Turning Red also acknowledges this fact of life, and while the PG-rated film doesn’t seek to educate wholly on the subject, parents may want to be prepared to answer some questions about a few words/phrases their kids may not be aware of yet. It’s gently delivered by Shi’s writing, so deft in the way it talks about it without actually talking about it that the message is received and understood for those who need it and could be missed for the rest that aren’t quite at that stage. Besides, before you know it, Mei’s feverish emotions have brought on the early appearance of the red panda that lives inside all of the women in her family.
Yes, when Mei cannot control her emotions, she turns into a towering red panda. While we could talk endlessly about the metaphors this signifies, Shi doesn’t linger too long in the symbolism and instead opts to have fun with colorful scenes featuring Mei as the panda finding newfound popularity with her classmates after discovering her secret. The crux of the plot involves Mei and her close friends (an excellent array of personalities) raising money off of Mei as the red panda to see their favorite boy band (4*Town, with five members) coming to the local arena. When the concert coincides with a ritual that could rid the red panda from Mei, she’ll need to choose if she wants to adhere to the expected formality from her family or embrace the duality in which she’s found a balance.
What keeps reinforcing the energy throughout Turning Red is Shi’s commitment to the perspective of this Chinese-Canadian 13-year-old and the feeling that the story is being told from her angle. It’s not overly simplified, nor is it outwardly so twee that it is cutesy. That’s saying a lot for a movie featuring a very smooshable red panda as a central character. The dynamic between Mei and her mom is richly developed, with both Chiang and especially Oh adding significantly to that success in helping audiences understand beyond the animated expressions why the mother may want the daughter to get the panda under control sooner than later. Finally, the three songs for 4*Town, written by Billie Eilish and Finneas O’Connell (Oscar-nominated this year for the theme song to No Time to Die), are more substantial than your average musical contributions. The melodies and winking lyrics fit nicely with Ludwig Göransson’s (Venom) first score for an animated feature.
I’m glad the immediate streaming release will get Turning Red in front of more people right away, but I honestly wish I had seen this one in theaters. Its overarching message of understanding the importance of individuality and finding satisfaction with yourself is so rich that delivery through a bigger medium would have been lovely to witness. Though I have heard it will get a theatrical release in a few locations, I can see why the studio felt like it might make sense for the more emotionally resonant movie to debut on Disney+. Big screen, tiny screen, computer screen, etc., whatever, Turning Red is one of the studio’s most consistently engaging movies.