Review: Turning Red brings visibility and comedic realness to adolescence

Turning Red Poster – Disney and Pixar Studios

Growing up is tough, especially when puberty hits. It attacks the mind and the body with fury in ways you cannot quite fathom until it’s already upon you: the voice deepens, the pits sweat, the moods swing. I have never had any desire to revisit this stage of my life—or, if it is still upon me, I doubt I will have a desire to visit in the future. But in the case of Disney Pixar’s Turning Red, the film provides a pleasantly relatable and comedic take on this transitional stage of life, all while infused with the long under-appreciated cultural influence of the Sino Diaspora. 

Mei is a thirteen-year-old girl with the traits that define the young: fascination with pop music, an accompaniment of technology in the form of a Tamagotchi watch, and a distinctly rebellious attitude towards her parents. 

Whenever Mei changes in disposition, she transforms into a red panda which, as fascinating as it is for the viewer, terrorizes the young girl.

Where she differs, however, is in how her adolescence takes its roots: pandas. Whenever Mei changes in disposition, she transforms into a red panda which, as fascinating as it is for the viewer, terrorizes the young girl. To rid herself of this familial trait, which she learns is shared by her mother, Ming, and other relatives, must embark on an exploration of her heritage. When she learns to love her new trait and embrace her individuality, she must debate whether or not to rid herself of the panda as those have before her, thus resulting in conflict with her family.

In rendering the emerging teenage experience, Disney blends appropriate humor with provoking self-reflection. While not all experience their teenage years through the same lens, one begins to feel as if they know a Mei, maybe within themselves, where they must seriously consider the future version of themselves. Or perhaps the viewer feels like they know one of Mei’s friends, who together create an outcast quartet that takes on the world with compassion and youthful optimism.

This striking realism within these animated personas lies in the genius of casting.

This striking realism within these animated personas lies in the genius of casting. Rosalie Chiang (Mei) brings vibrance to the young girl that instantly gives off the impressionability of her age, while Sandra Oh’s (Ming) brilliance in character interpretation blurs the lines between sentimentality and rote dialogue. 

What also weighs heavily on the film’s appeal to the teen audience is the soundtrack. Ludwig Göransson—who has worked with the likes of Childish Gambino, HAIM, and Adele—brought a technically diverse array of compositions to the movie’s demanding variations in mood and style. With contributions from Billie Eilish and her brother Finneas O’Connell, who wrote three pieces for the film’s K-Pop and boy-band-sounding group, 4*Town, the appeal of the music is simple: it’s catchy.

Via these influences, director Domee Shi, the architect of the Oscar-winning short film, “Bao”, takes the cliche of teenage self-discovery and transforms it into something more valuable. Turning Red’s plotline is rooted in Asian heritage and representation. To see North American-Asian representation in mainstream film is still a rarity, especially when it comes to youth-oriented media.

And while the protagonist Mei traces her roots to the Sino Diaspora, Shi is sure to draw influences from across the Asian community. The subtlety of Japanese anime referencing in the animation, the homage to Korean pop culture in the music, and the constant relationship drawn between Chinese spiritualism and contemporary culture give visibility to those often unrepresented in this sort of storyline. 

By digging into certain tropes, the film wanes dangerously close to reinforcing stereotypes about Asian communities.

At the same time, this is also where Turning Red shows its weaknesses as a film. By digging into certain tropes, the film wanes dangerously close to reinforcing stereotypes about Asian communities. The plotline uses the traditional “tiger mom” dynamic as a form of childhood subjection but can do little to provide context for viewers as they watch a young Mei reject her mother’s pressure.

But perhaps there is a benefit in this movie’s design. By bringing forth myriad subjects, it delves into creating a larger picture of Asian-Canadian and Asian-American representation on movie screens. And while it does not get the chance to dive into some history surmounted by the plot, it does create the space for discussion and heightens its relatability to Asian youth. 

With Turning Red, I was pleasantly surprised.

It’s not often I spend time revisiting Pixar. But with Turning Red, I was pleasantly surprised. To encapsulate the essence of childhood’s yield to teenage years is so difficult, and to make it amusing for an audience of all ages is truly an accomplishment. To also see so many parts of myself on display—whether it be through identity or experience—was a real treat.