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Friday, December 08, 2023

‘Turning Red’ is turning heads

Pixar is back again with another tearjerker. This time, it pulls at the heartstrings of once-adolescent girls and bothers those that love to ignore basic biology. 

“Turning Red,” Domee Shi’s directorial debut, follows Meilin “Mei'' Lee as she soon has to face a family curse that turns her into a giant red panda whenever expressing strong emotion. 

The movie is the first ever Pixar film directed by a woman and only the second to feature an Asian lead character, following “Up.” Despite the milestone being achieved far too late, it’s pretty cool to have the movie echo the early struggles women face. The notability of the movie just makes the topic all the more pressing to the public. Perhaps Pixar was onto something with the female director idea.  

Mei, who is Chinese-Canadian, is a 13-year-old who can’t and won’t be stopped. We learn early on that she’s eager and excited about pretty much everything. Of course, her biggest passion lies with 4*Town, the hottest boy band around. Think N-Sync, One Direction, BTS. 

In an interview, Shi shared that the name 4*Town is actually a combination of O-Town and b4-4, a Toronto boy band. The band serves as a great part of the plot, tapping into all the best parts of the 2000s and providing a strong basis for the friendship of Mei and her three best friends, Miriam, Priya and Abby. 

Mei and her mother, Ming, appear to be very close. We see Mei and her mom, who is strict and overprotective, work in-sync with one another at the family temple. Of course, Mei keeps things from her mom, like her obsession with 4*Town. A secret many, including myself, can relate to because if there’s anyone a 13-year-old girl would love more than their mother, it is absolutely the timely teenage heartthrob. 

When Ming discovers that Mei has a crush on the clerk at the local convenience store, she embarasses Mei in front of the school bully. Later that day, Mei dreams vividly of red pandas, painting the scene for what’s to come. 

At the onset of Mei’s puberty, she is confronted with a very large, red and furry reflection in the mirror. She soon realizes that she has in fact turned into a giant red panda. Her reaction is warranted, she panics and tries to navigate the new dimensions of her body in a small bathroom. 

In the room over, dinner is ready but the sound from Mei’s commotion travels. Like most mothers across the globe, Ming assumes that the moment has come for Mei’s first period. Minus the red panda in the room, it is a portrayal of a pretty universal female experience and many laughs were had in my living room. 

The talk that follows takes a slightly different turn than the typical dialogue in a situation like this. Ming and Mei’s father explain that Sun Yee, their ancestor, was first granted the ability to transform in order to protect her daughters as they came of age. Of course, as years passed, this curse became more inconvenient than helpful and a way to conceal it was discovered. On the Red Moon, the spirit must be sealed by a talisman in a ritual. Mei has one month to keep the panda at bay before she’s able to mask the spirit for good. Ming, Mei’s grandmother and those before them have all completed the ritual so we learn quickly that it’s not as much an option as the only choice. 

Mei inevitably tells her friends after they discover Mei’s new identity one day following an outburst of anger. What Mei assumes to be the worst case scenario actually ends up working out in her favor. She leans on her friends to keep her emotions in check and soon enough, she’s able to take control over her feelings and alas, the spirit. 

It’s a cute glance at how friendships can help young women navigate anything. One of my biggest fears coming into this movie, with slight discourse already in the back of my mind, was that they would portray a young woman on her period as frantic and erratic, rather than just overwhelmed and confused. I argue that “Turning Red” and Shi do a really good and effective job at not leaning into the stereotype but also not avoiding it. Yes, fine. Menstruating does make women angry and causes them to cry out of nowhere. But, people should understand what menstruating actually is! 

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The movie starts to build suspense when Ming’s mother and other aunts arrive in Toronto to help Mei for the ritual. At the same time, Mei starts to embrace the curse and suddenly the whole school wants a picture with a cute, furry red panda. Coincidentally, 4*Town announces a show nearby and Mei and her friends stop at nothing to get tickets. But, what sort of money do four 13-year-old girls have to spend on things they absolutely don’t want their parents to know about? 

Mei taps into her entrepreneurial skills and starts to charge people for a photo-op. To cover the last ticket, she tells Tyler, the school bully, that she’ll show up to his birthday party in exchange for enough money to cover the ticket. Things go south quickly when Mei learns that the concert is on the same night as the ritual. She attacks Tyler for making fun of her family and sides with her mom over her friends later on, burning many bridges. 

In a last minute twist, Mei decides to keep the red panda and stop the ritual halfway through. She flees the ceremony and while doing so, upsets her mother’s talisman, unleashing Ming’s even bigger red panda. Mei ends up at the 4*Town concert but it’s soon turned upside down when Ming shows up and destroys half the city in her wake. 

The two have it out as half the audience flees and the five members of 4*Town hides behind a broken piece from their set. Eventually, Mei and her mom make amends, which inspires Ming and her own mother, Wu, to also move forward in their relationship. It’s a heartwarming ending and even the 4*Town boys join in to help sing during the ritual that conceals both Wu and Ming’s pandas. Mei decides to keep hers and Ming accepts that she’s carving out her own path. Everyone wins, maybe except for the city of Toronto that walks away from that night in pretty bad shape. We see at the end that the Lee family raises money to repair the damage caused to the arena. 

When not hanging out with her friends, now including Tyler, she showcases her red panda at the temple, which brings crowds, money and a sense of familial peace that we spend the whole movie chasing. 

For all the controversy that “Turning Red” caused, the movie itself is quite the opposite. It’s always interesting to hear some of the conversation before seeing something because I find it quite hard to ignore. Only this time, if I wasn’t forgetting it, I was laughing at it. 

The movie shines a light on a topic that movies in general, let alone animated, have shied away from for decades. By providing a necessary forum, Shi is able to create a diverse space that all of the characters and fine details bring to life. Even if your period doesn’t include you turning into a giant red panda, girls can definitely relate to feeling like one. 

Final Grade: A

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