Until I saw Turning Red, I had no idea how much I needed the cute overload of a giant red panda scampering over the rooftops of downtown Toronto or stomping through the streets in what seems an homage to the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man in Ghostbusters. OK, sorry, massive spoiler, but I didn’t specify which giant red panda. And even if you know what’s coming, the magic of this rollicking metaphor for the rollercoaster of change that is puberty is all in the telling. Director Domee Shi, who brought a dumpling to life in her Oscar-winning short, Bao, graduates to features with flying colors — literally — in this charmer from Pixar.
Even before taking into account the invigorating imagination of the fast-paced story, which Shi co-wrote with playwright Julia Cho, there are a number of disarming factors here.
First, it’s a delight to see Toronto playing itself and not standing in for some U.S. location with fewer tax breaks. Second, pinning a mix of tradition and fantasy to the city’s bustling Chinatown community gives the film cultural specificity, while Shi’s light touch provides universal appeal in themes of friendship, the push-pull of complex mother-daughter relationships and the early-adolescent struggle to seize independence and figure out what kind of person you want to be. Oh, and there’s also a boy band called 4*Town, with amusingly cheesy pastiche songs written by Billie Eilish and Finneas O’Connell.
“Don’t hold back” is a message all of us have needed to hear at some point, along with the reassurance that it can be healthier to make room for the messy, complicated sides of our personalities, rather than suppress them. Young women whose bodies are changing as fast as their tastes and desires perhaps need to hear this more than anyone. And while girls around that transitional age no doubt will be the core audience for this Disney+ premiere, the infectious humor, the crazy energy, the inventive visuals and heartwarming wisdom all should broaden the appeal.
Meilin Lee (Rosalie Chiang) is a good daughter with a close relationship to her kind but controlling mother Ming (Sandra Oh) and easygoing father Jin (Orion Lee). Mei to her besties, Miriam (Ava Morse), Priya (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan) and Abby (Hyein Park), and MeiMei to her family, she’s 13 and likes to think of herself as a feisty free spirit. But in truth, she’s a straight-A, over-achieving dork who’s usually too busy cleaning the ancestral family temple and helping out on her Mom’s guided tours to kick back at karaoke with her friends.
About that temple: It honors not just the gods but specifically, the family’s ancestors, chief among them the powerful matriarchal figure Sun Yee, a scholar, poet, warrior and defender of animals who had a special connection to the red panda. The Lees believe that mystical creature has blessed their family with good fortune and prosperity.
When hyper-vigilant Ming discovers her daughter’s crush on a boy, she humiliates Mei in front of her peers, sparking a nightmare in which Sun Yee’s magic seeps into the 21st century girl’s reality. Mei wakes in the morning and sees not her own sweet, bespectacled face in the bathroom mirror but a towering red panda. Understandably, she freaks, attempting to hide the disturbing development from her parents. In a funny gag that’s notably candid for a Pixar kids’ film, Ming assumes her daughter has gotten her first period. But strangely, the far more startling revelation of Mei’s physical transformation seems to phase her mother much less.
While the power passed down by Sun Yee to generations of daughters is a gift that might have been useful on battlefields of old, it’s more of an encumbrance at a Toronto middle school in 2002, when the film is set. Or is it? Mei learns to control the emergence of her outsize fiery furball alter ego by keeping a lid on her emotions, drawing on the Zen calm she gets from being around her friends. But Ming has other ideas, deeming it too dangerous for her child to co-exist with the red panda and preparing for a temple ritual that will contain the beast on the night of the next red moon.
Co-writers Shi and Cho strike an effervescent balance between folkloric fantasy and contemporary teen-movie tropes as Mei and her friends discover that a giant red panda can be an asset. That’s exactly what happens when news drops that 4*Town will be playing a concert at the Toronto SkyDome and they need to raise cash for four $200 tickets. But conflicting dates and Mei’s increasingly mixed feelings about permanently sequestering her wild side cause friction, especially once her fiercely regal Grandma (Wai Ching Ho) arrives from Florida with a gaggle of aunties to take charge.
The tangle of mother-daughter relationships — the urge for approval butting up against the hunger for emancipation — is explored across three generations, with anxiety fueled by Ming’s hairy history with her own formidable panda. The spiky arguments between Mei and her mother are humorously offset by the mellow response to the panda crisis of her dad, a gentle soul who tells his daughter: “Red is a lucky color.”
Suspense is built into the storytelling through the knowledge that each time the panda is unleashed it gets stronger, making it less likely that the ritual will succeed and leaving Mei bound to the creature forever. But there’s also Mei’s internal conflict of learning to lose control now and then, just like any teenager, while struggling with her deep-rooted fear of disappointing her mother. And in keeping with the life-or-death importance given to most things in a 13-year-old’s world, the thought of having to miss the 4*Town concert for these dreamy-eyed superfans is unendurable.
There’s a distinct feeling throughout that this material is very personal to Shi, obviously not in terms of pandafication but perhaps of teen years spent navigating the line between honoring her family and exploring her freedom, as well as the foibles of mothers with high expectations. Sparky newcomer Chiang tackles the growing pains with irrepressible spirit, and it’s a joy to see MeiMei stand up to Ming: “My panda, my choice, Mom.”
But this is also a loving portrait of teen friendship. Mei’s pals’ instant acceptance of her transformation yields some exhilarating bonding moments — not to mention a fun “Bootylicious” montage — and shifts their standing in the school hierarchy.
The distinctive personalities of all the girls are nicely captured, not just in the facial and physical characteristics but also in droll voice work from Morse, Ramakrishnan and Park, a story artist at Pixar who worked on Bao, Toy Story 4 and Soul. Without making a big deal of it, the movie warmly celebrates these racially diverse characters and the multicultural city they live in, rendered in pretty pastel backgrounds.
The invaluable Oh brings her quick-witted delivery to the key adult role of Ming, leaning into the control freak but tempering the character’s brittle edges with genuine love and concern for her only child Mei’s wellbeing. That said, the emergence of her ferocious side in the climactic action is a riot.
That of course takes place at the SkyDome, where Ludwig Göransson’s score — mixing bouncy, big-synth pop with traditional Chinese music — is interwoven with infernally catchy 4*Town gems titled “U Know What’s Up,” “Nobody Like U” and “1 True Love” (sample lyrics: “Heavy rain on a Saturday / When you said my name in the saddest way”). Co-songwriter O’Connell also provides the sugary-sweet tight harmonies with Jordan Fisher, Topher Ngo, Grayson Villanueva and Josh Levi. Yes, there are five of them despite being called 4*Town, as Ming pedantically points out.
The visual style shows Shi’s influences ranging from anime to Miyazaki to Chinese watercolors, particularly in gorgeous dream sequences and in the other-worldly bamboo glade that Sun Yee’s spirit inhabits. (That realm prompts a touching meeting of Mei with her mother as a teen, whimsically recalling Petite Maman.) But the look predominantly is shaped by the vibrant color palette and sparkle of a teen girl’s eye view. Turning Red is original, funny and tender, an affectionate reminder that adolescence is a time of life not easily tamed, and sometimes the animal inside us demands release.