What was particularly curious to me about Turning Red was not the subject matter of the film so much as when the film takes place.
Halfway thru, I finally discovered that the film’s director, Domee Shi (her full length feature debut), was born around the same time as the film’s protagonist. This makes the intimacy of Turning Red only more personal and profound.
As a 13 year old girl living in Toronto in 2002, Meilin (“Mei”) Lee (new comer Rosalie Chiang) let’s us know being loyal to her family is the number one priority of her life. This instilled upon her mainly by her mother Ming (Sandra Oh), who enlists the help of her daughter and husband (Orion Lee) to take care of the local Chinese temple. Still, she manages to succeed at school and (along with her group of friends) idolize over a boy band called 4*Town (“Why are they called that when they have five members?”, her mom complains).
Mei’s life takes a drastic turn one morning when she realizes her body has changed, but not in the way teenage girls (or guys, for that matter) would. She has turned into a giant red panda. She soon learns this happens every time she experiences any emotion at a high level, and it is something that runs in the family for all female members. She realizes that it may not be all as bad as she thought, despite what her mom believes.
In regards to how villains are portrayed in an animated film, there are two pathways to success. The first is to have a memorable villain, whether it is by their name, who is playing them, or how over the top they are. The second can be a more risky approach, which is to have no real villains at all, which is what Turning Red does. Of course, there are moments where Mei disagrees with her mom, and it is clearly evident that Ming has her own issues in the relationship with her own mother (Wai Ching Ho). Even so, the oppositional forces in the movie are still, when you think of it, somewhat relatable (I won’t say what they are in fear of spoilers). It is reminiscent of the types of forces found in Encanto.
Recall when I mentioned how director Domee Shi (who was also one of the writers on the film) has the story set in 2002 (which was only a couple years off my time as a 13 year old). There are touches of authenticity that are rather affective (not the least of which is the resurgence of the love for tamagotchi pets). The most heart pulling moments for me were whenever Mei was with her friends. The fact that Mei can be at peace by simply thinking of her besties is borderline magical.
It is mindboggling to know that Turning Red is the 25th feature film for Disney/Pixar. If you look back at Toy Story (1995) and the other first films in the library, it is easy to see how computer animation has improved. This is not to say that that all the newer films are better than the ones of the 1990s/early 2000s (many of those early ones are bound to stand the test of time), but the animation has indeed improved. Turning Red is no exception, as it proves the best of animated films are so atheistically pleasing that we are still fixated on the story and characters regardless of what it looks like.
Parents, it is a Disney/Pixar film, so you kids are going to be okay. There is no swearing (the worst you hear is Mei saying “crap”, which I may be a first for a Pixar film). There are also some scary moments for kids under the age of seven or so toward the end, but nothing drastic.
It is likely that any adult watching this film will think back to the first years when they became teenagers, back when the world was full of extra homework, extra activities after school, and first crushes (my first attempt at asking out a girl was an epic calamity). I remember getting no less than two books on how to deal with that time in my life (most of which were given to me by my step mom, who I never gave proper credit to). There was one book in particular that crossed my mind, mainly because of the artwork (not that kind of art work). It was help for my middle school years.
Definitely nothing was discussed about dealing with turning into a panda.