Even the premise of a quirky Asian adolescent who changes into a gigantic red panda whenever she gets aroused gives me pause. This makes reviewing the upcoming Disney/Pixar picture “Turning Red,” which will be released on Disney+ on March 11, all the more challenging. Because that’s the idea underlying this sometimes lighthearted but haphazard coming-of-age film, which comes to heel between accurately portraying a Chinese family, warts and all, the indulgence of stereotyping.
Meilin Lee (voiced by Rosalie Chiang) is your typical thirteen-year-old girl: She loves dances, has boy crushes, and is surrounded by quirky but devoted close friends who are all obsessed with the glossy-lipped boy band 4*Town. She is also a Chinese Canadian, residing in Toronto since 2002, where her family still maintains a temple. There she helps her adoring but the overcontrolling mother, Ming (Sandra Oh), and strives to be the ideal daughter — even if it means bottling up her own feelings and aspirations. This gets much more difficult when she undergoes changes – not of the menstrual kind, but of the panda sort.
The narrative and design of the characters in “Turning Red,” directed by Domee Shi, is where the film excels the best. My friend Mei exudes the relatable swagger of the middle school cool nerd — she’s creative and self-assured, as well as has a perfect report card. Among Mei’s closest female friends is the tomboy skater girl Miriam, the deadpan Priya, and the humorously feisty Abby, who make up a quirky trio of gal buddies who provide her emotional safety net. Also noteworthy is Ming’s ability to achieve an excellent blend between heavy-handed and doting, thrust aside Mei’s friends and hobbies while tracking her at school to ply her with steamed buns.
Shi uses modest but effective means to convey the characteristics of even minor characters, from the stiffly applied makeup of Mei’s grandmother (Ho-Wai Ching) to the flashy open-toed footwear of the gang of aunties that accompany Grandma Lee. Additionally, the movement of Mei’s hair in her panda form — how it lies flat when she is peaceful and spikes upward when she gets angry — underscores her emotional swings.
It comes as no surprise that these kinds of reactions are where Shi’s directing shines the brightest; similarly to her 2018 Oscar-winning Pixar short “Bao,” “Turning Red” thrives on the complicated emotional interaction between a mother and her kid on the verge of leaving the nest. And, like in “Bao,” in which a woman nurtures a steamed bun kid from birth to maturity, Shi used a culturally particular metaphor to describe her characters’ emotions here as well.
This is where the “Turning Red” gets into trouble: In spite of the fact that the plot’s red panda magic is anchored in its characters’ cultural traditions (the Lees worships an ancestor who protected her family with the power of a red panda), these nuances aren’t enough to save the picture from being a kid-friendly version of exoticism. After all, the show’s characters benefit from Mei’s adorable and exotic makeover.
And when it comes down to the film’s conflict, the adversaries of the film are the women in Mei’s family, which is a nice touch. Or, to put it another way, the oppressive cultural customs and family expectations are personified by the female characters. Mei’s grandma is introduced in a sinister manner that would be appropriate for the boss of a gangster film, and the fact that both of these ladies suffer from the red panda affliction implies that they fall into a stereotype of cold, heartless Asian women. Is the film attempting to address the stereotype or just fulfilling it? It’s impossible to discern where the line is. By the end of the film, a little understanding, empathy, and a pandapocalypse have reassured us that the stoic Asian ladies are not just victims, but also the root of the issue, as Mei has discovered. Though I’m curious as to how the film would have turned out if the conflict had not been performed purely through the eyes of these ladies.
Despite its chaos, “Turning Red” has pleasant tidbits, such as a few recalls to the early aughts, such as Tamagotchis and the pre-BTS boy band craze. (4*Town’s insanely catchy tunes, created by Billie Eilish and her brother, Finneas O’Connell, are flawless reimaginings of 2000s pop successes.)