Directed by: Domee Shi
Distributed by: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
Written by: Patrick Hao
Contrary to some people’s beliefs, the most specific stories are often the most relatable stories. That is the case with Domee Shi’s “Turning Red,” the latest film from Pixar. The heroine is Meilin (Rosalie Chiang), a 13-year-old Chinese Canadian living in Toronto’s Chinatown. She follows the oft-told Asian immigrant kid stereotype. She is a great student who wants to be the perfect daughter to her ever-wanting mother (Sandra Oh).
While Mei understands and serves that obligation for family, she also strives to become independent, first through her obsession with the teenage pop band 4*Town and her friends, Miriam (Ava Morse), Priya (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan), and Abby (Hyein Park). This tension comes to the forefront when it is discovered that the women in her family turn into giant red pandas as they transition from adolescence to adulthood. The panda is only released when great emotions are exhibited, an obvious metaphor for the intense feelings and hormones of that age.
“Turning Red” may mark another film in Disney’s cultural tourism, but instead of just doing a film about the concept of Southeast Asians, Polynesians, or the southern coast of Italy, this film feels different in that it strives for hyper specificity. Mei is individually herself and the Toronto she lives in feels like Toronto, and not just because there are Tim Bits in the foreground. The film’s mechanics feel like a break from Pixar’s lauded story by committee approach to filmmaking that can often feel too paint-by-numbers for its own good. It has been a long time since a filmmaker’s personality within the confines of Pixar has been able to break out the way that Shi has.
This is also best seen in the way that film approaches the concept of cross-generational shame, a concept that reinvigorates the disappointing family story of many Asian immigrant films. Shi’s nuanced depiction of the way shame permeates through the generations, first from Mei’s grandma to her mom, and then from her mom to herself, is the first time that I felt that was depicted accurately on screen from my own personal experience. The last time I felt that way was from Shi’s own short film, “Bao.”
Both of these films continue the complicated dynamic that persists within immigrant households, particularly those of Asians, in which responsibility towards family is so tied to the dynamics of livelihood. No one is trying to be malicious, but this overbearing sense of responsibility persists. It’s a difficult dynamic to fully come across onscreen, yet Shi does a good job both portraying this dynamic and how difficult it is for others to understand. It goes beyond just “tiger parenting.” It is a palpable disappointment that you inflict on the family’s name.
That isn’t to say that “Turning Red” is not also a fountain of comedic inventiveness. Pixar has smartly moved away from their original intention of visual realism and instead has opted for characters animated around personalities. The panda version of Mei is large, fluffy, and cute, tailor-made for plush dolls. The human characters, with their round faces, animate like Aardman and move fluidly like Genndy Tarkovsky. It’s a wonderful mix that enhances the personality of the people in the world.
All that culminates to a movie that depicts the messiness of growing up and the contradictions that come within. With “Luca” and now “Turning Red,” for the first time in a few years, there seems to be a good palpable direction for Pixar. They are moving away from the heady existentialism of “Inside Out” or “Toy Story 4,” which has become formulaic, to something that feels more personal. And, although stories are coming out about some of the creative accommodations the creators at Disney have had to make, “Turning Red” presents the possibility of a spark breaking through the miasma.
“Turning Red” Trailer