While Fa Mulan had to save China to see her true reflection, Meilin Lee only needs to turn 13.
The lead of Disney–Pixar's Turning Red, a Canadian middle schooler named Mei (voiced by Rosalie Chiang), has a charmed existence up until life sends the ultimate curveball her way. As a descendant of the enchantress Sun Yee — like her grandmother (Wai Ching Ho), her aunties, and her mother Ming (Sandra Oh) before her — Mei experiences an unexpected transformation when she comes of age. She turns into an outsized and emotion-activated red panda.
Mei won’t realize it right away, nor does her mother, who thinks it’s just a menarche event, but the first day of this shocking metamorphosis is also the start of an endearing and thoughtful journey.
Much like her Oscar-winning short Bao, Domee Shi’s Turning Red is about chemistry at its core. Working with a grander framework and a reversal of the perspectives (it's the child's story now), the heart of Shi’s work still resides in the characters’ interactions. Besides the more apparent ones between Mei and Ming, there are those between human-Mei and animal-Mei that are more spiritual in nature, making this particular Pixar tale surprisingly more than its huggable exterior.
Shi’s poppy approach for Turning Red distinguishes her artistry from other animators. She is the first from the famous animation studio to helm a film solo — and the first to use Asian-centric cultural elements in a significant way.
The joy-sparking blend of realistic textures with ardent anime influences may spare little time for deeper thoughts to take root, but the film also doesn't wholly excise them either. You can still enjoy the movie for all it offers on the surface. Seeing Shi apply the dynamics of the red panda's ears and tail to make Chiang's performance even more expressive is a delight. The same can be said for the visual displays of an Asian mother's full power, the one wagging finger and the two arms going akimbo.
On that note, Sandra Oh is a master of confusion-laced gags, most evident when her character Ming uncovers Mei’s boy-focused fantasies in a notebook, completely teen-risqué and all hand-drawn.
Shi again manifests the foodie in her, bringing har gows, baozis, and — educated guess here — hui guo rou to animated life. You’ll also get occasional flashbacks to the days when animes Cardcaptor Sakura, Sailor Moon, or Fruits Basket were all the rage, thanks to details like pupils defying their boundaries, hyper-visible tears and sweat, slo-mo emphases, and other cute exaggerations.
Letting the style and tone revolve around Mei is also a neat touch to supercharge the plot’s resonance. If at any point Turning Red seems to become less vibrant or unfold slower, it suggests that forces are minimizing Mei. There are plenty of those overbearing powers at hand, but the main one ironically is the person who loves her most — her mom. Ming and Mei may seem to be doing the same things, appearing in photos, keeping the family temple clean, watching costume dramas, and enjoying homemade meals from husband/dad Jin (Orion Lee), but they’re far from having the same minds.
That’s because Ming has grown, and Mei is still growing. While the top priority for mom is family, what’s important to Mei are boys and her boy-loving squad: braced Miriam (Ava Morse), mellow Priya (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan), and super-hype woman Abby (Hyein Park). If a concert of the popular boy band 4*Town (Jordan Fisher, Finneas, Topher Ngo, Grayson Villanueva, and Josh Levi) is the “first step into womanhood” to Mei, it’s just a public display of “glittery delinquents” who — according to Ming — gyrate and negatively influence girls to have a counting problem. (After all, the five-member band has the number 4 in their name.)
In exploring the complexities (and hilarities) of maturing and parenting with a lens belonging to women of Asian descent, writers Shi and Julia Cho propose that coming of age is less of a forked path and more like the same road but with added lanes. As the film’s pandemoniac climax will show, there is no victor when the options are “my way or no way,” or “collectivism or bust,” or “individualism or bust.”
Composer Ludwig Göransson helps with creating this nexus of Mei’s worlds with how his music seems to travel between realms. The flute, dizi, erhu, guzheng, and drums befriend the modern score with ease. The instruments also are worked into a fusion dance with a 4*Town song that musicians Billie Eilish and Finneas engineered. It falls in sync with the backstreets, giving the film's final stretch many lasting moments.
“Shi infuses plenty of soul in Turning Red.”
This musical detail underlines how Mei’s story is as much about her future as her history. They also evoke a sense of displacement that is a hallmark of the immigrant experience. The most memorable part of Ming’s explanation for the matrilineal red panda “feature” is that it’s seen as protective in their homeland and interpreted as destructive outside of it. Ming is right, frankly, as red panda Mei's panicked dash from school to home does recall some kaiju films but only much cuter.
In gathering these many layers, Shi infuses plenty of soul in Turning Red. Whether enjoyed for its dynamic animation or its possible depths, the movie’s message remains the same: Once you’ve turned red, you can still adore and accept yourself — and have hope that the people you love will do the same.
Turning Red debuts March 11, 2022 on Disney+.