Turning Red is Disney and Pixar’s groundbreaking film with Asian representation, tackling femininity, generational trauma and periods.
Turning Red is a Toronto land of Tamagotchis, tsum tsums and tempers as director Domee Shi has audiences empathise with lead Meilin (Rosalie Chiang) in a monumental film for Disney’s legacy.
Meilin – Mei for short – runs a local tourist temple about her family’s history and how it is associated with the mystical red panda with her mother Ming (Sandra Oh) while traversing the landscape of puberty, infatuations with boybands, and friendships.
One day, however, Mei finds herself blessed with the ability to turn into a giant red panda whenever her emotions get the better of her, which as you can imagine the troublous time of adolescence is where Disney is relying on hooking your emotions.
Further, this Disney-lite equivalent of Lady Bird is Domee Shi’s directorial debut as a feature film, with Shi previously gaining huge online fame for her short film Bao.
The silent film about a relationship between a mother and her son told exclusively about how her mother treats bao buns proved to the world, and to Disney’s bank account, that Shi was a worthy director to helm the Turning Red tale.
Interestingly, the dynamic between family and Asian heritage is definitely something that Shi leans into more with Turning Red, as the film adds in themes about puberty, feminity and generational trauma associated with constantly seeking validation from your elders.
Told through a slightly stereotypical lens, with an anime art style in partnership with Disney’s trademark soft models, Turning Red’s soundtrack is predominately pipes and wind instruments juxtaposed with the main diegetic Nobody Like U as performed by fictional boyband 4*TOWN.
Turning Red’s most interesting angle is without question its metaphoric association between Mei reaching womanhood and discovering her inner panda.
This is as the film descends into its emotional second act, as Mei is told she has to strip herself of the panda’s ability in order to fit in with society – as exemplified by Ming’s attitude towards the panda’s magical blessing that she has repressed.
What I find most challenging about this film, isn’t the panda premise, or its emotive hooks, but rather, why the film decided to be set in the early 00s.
The mementoes of Tamagotchis, and boy band posters reminiscent of the Backstreet Boys litter Mei’s room as if Turning Red is a fictitious telling of Shi’s own childhood.
However, the kitsch of our youth feels unfulfilled. Aside from the quirkiness of setting the film in the 00s, relying on capitalising off nostalgia, the timepiece feels off and unnecessary.
I appreciate that there are parallels to be drawn between the film’s early naughty background and the modernity of youth language, as much like fashion, the trends of today have cycled back to boybands, flared jeans, and garnish accessories with the likes of BTS storming the charts with every new single as mirrored in 4*TOWN, as written by Billie Eilish.
Turning Red is interesting without question. It will spark a conversation, and for a large percentage of audiences, it will be something people will come back to, but it won’t be for me.
Disney/Pixar seem to be past their sell-by date, and while I’d love to optimistically assume that Turning Red is Pixar trying again; both studios Laika and Sony Animations are consistently upping their game to what animation can do.
So if Pixar in turn will create more films like Turning Red then I’m intrigued.
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