In cinemas and streaming on Disney+
Magical themes and some scary moments.
I expected to enjoy Turning Red but I confess it left me a little emotionally flat.
It is the latest animated release from Disney’s Pixar stable, in time for the school holidays. The trailer sets you up for a magical ride through a slightly unusual coming-of-age experience, when 13-year-old Meilin Lee discovers that red pandas run in the family – literally – when she turns into a big fluffy beast after an emotionally charged day.
We discover it’s something that has happened to every woman in Mei’s family since, hundreds of years earlier, their esteemed ancestress prayed to the gods for a way to protect her family in a time of war. Your average teen just gets zits, but it’s a bit harder to hide unexpected panda breakouts in 21st century Toronto!
Up until now, Mei has been the perfect daughter: obedient and high achieving – almost to the point of obsession. She’s a super nerd and proud of it, with a tight friendship group (three close friends, three cultural backgrounds) and confidence that she’s going to ace Year 8 at school.
Then, suddenly, every time she experiences a strong emotion she morphs into the emblem of the family temple, the red panda, in all its fluffy glory. How is she going to navigate this?
When Mei locks herself in the family bathroom in distress, her over-protective tiger mum Ming (voiced by Sandra Oh), believes that the “red peony” has blossomed and rushes around collecting sanitary items and offering helpful tips for period cramps. Female viewers will wince and laugh with recognition, while viewers from a range of cultures will see their family’s own tiger mums in Ming’s exhausting, over-the-top atitude.
But Turning Red is really about (female) puberty. In capital letters. While there’s no red peony yet (I do love that line), the appearance of the red panda does signal a change in Mei’s attitude. She begins to doodle cartoons of herself in clinches with boys, sighs ever more emotionally over the latest boy band and becomes increasingly sassy with her parents.
While Ming and all the other women in the family have, with the help of a shaman, magically “trapped” their panda selves, Mei revels in her panda – not listening to her mother’s warnings that the more frequently she transforms, the harder it will be to get rid of it when the time comes.
Mei’s friends are impressed by her new assertiveness and willingness to go against her family. And everyone at school wants to hang out with the panda. What does Mei want in exchange for some panda time, a group of girls ask: “Money? My kidney? My soul?” Just a little creepy, that.
Yes, the experiences of puberty are global, so the fact that the story is embedded in a Chinese community in Toronto doesn’t matter a bit. Yet somehow I felt less emotionally connected to this film than something as far removed from real life as Mulan, which also delves into Chinese culture, the spirit world and the importance of family.
Despite all the efforts Turning Red makes to engage the attention or tug at the heartstrings, the emotion sometimes feels forced. It won’t be that way for everyone – certainly, friends of Chinese heritage see much that’s familiar and true in Mei’s family dynamic and cultural experiences. But for me, although most of the focus is on the relationships between the women/girls in the film, the most emotionally authentic moments are those Mei shares with her gentle father.
Perhaps I am also dealing with my own version of the overprotective mum, but I confess the disrespectful, lying element to the “new” Mei didn’t sit well with me – although, to be fair, she does swerve wildly between trying to please her mother and trying to please herself. And that, too, is part of growing up.
I’m sure Turning Red will be a hit. There is plenty of appeal in its colourful craziness, laughs and “magic” – and even a clutch of songs written by Billie Eilish and her brother Finneas O'Connell for the film’s boy band, 4*TOWN.
It’s always good to be reminded of the importance of family and supportive friends who love you despite your flaws – and that puberty is just a phase to be negotiated with patience. Not sure if Turning Red is the best vehicle for expressing that, but the target audience will probably think so.