Starring: Rosalie Chian, Sandra Oh, Ava Morris, Hyien Park, Maitreyi Ramakrishnan, and Orion Lee.
Directed By: Domee Shi
Where I Watched It: Disney plus
English Audio Description Available?: Yes
The Plot: A 13 year old Chinese Canadian girl, with an incredibly stereotypical tiger mom/helicopter parent complex, tries to always be the best student she can be. But after an incident leaves her in an incredibly emotional state, she finds out that she can turn into a giant red panda. This revelation leads to larger revelations about her families history and connection with the red panda. But since the panda is triggered by strong emotions, is it dangerous? Could she be trapped as a red panda forever?
What Works: I had the sneaking suspicion that this film was directed by the same director Pixar let direct the beautiful short Bow, about a woman and her little dumpling, and I was right. That is easily one of Pixar’s best short films, and letting her direct a feature was absolutely the right way to go. Shi is probably the reason there’s any heart in this film at all, or why it somehow comes together in the end.
The best Pixar films all have strong emotional bonds. That’s what Pixar does better and more consistently than any other animation studio, so when the emotional connection is lacking, or not as strong as their previous works, it will immediately be discarded nowadays. Which is really unfair, because Pixar can’t possibly be expected to always top itself after making such classic works like Toy Story, Finding Nemo, Wall E, and up. The bar set by those four films alone is like climbing Mount Everest, yet many other Pixar films manage to do just fine.
Inside Out managed to get us to care about an imaginary friend more than we ever thought we would, Brave sold us on a mother/daughter dynamic that almost went horribly wrong, and Ratatouille inspired us with the anyone can cook motto. Even the comedic Monsters Inc melted our hearts with a little girl known only as Boo.
So, what is the powerful emotional connection in Turning Red/ Is there one? Is it the one they wanted us to catch, or is it even the one you picked up on?
For me, the strongest connection here was friendship, that ride or die feeling you get with only ever a few people in life. And for a film steeped so heavily in family tree lore, generational connections, and cultural identity, the fact that I found the strongest bond to be between the main character and her friends is either what the film was intended to suggest, in that “family is what you make it” to be, a little like what Luca was selling us on, or the film just messed up.
i guess what I’m trying to say, is that this isn’t your top tier Pixar, nor is this the bottom tier. It’s that middle tier, because some of it works, and works rather well, but not all of it.
What Doesn’t Work: This film pushed me back to earlier Pixar works like Brave and Finding Nemo that really highlighted the parent/child dynamic. With marlin in Nemo, his character is very much the lead, and he goes through so much personal growth as the movie progresses, so that the ending makes sense. Sure, he’s over protective at the beginning, but his adventure, and eventually trusting his child all feels organic because of how the film is laid out.
With Merida and her mother in Brave, in the few scenes we get before her mother turns into a bear, her mother isn’t nearly as insufferable as our mother in Turning Red. And, once again, there’s a journey. Two characters learn more about each other, there’s obvious personal growth, and the ending makes such a greater impact because of that.
Here, the film gives us a mom that is already WAY too much at the beginning of the film. Instantly, I hated her. I kept wanting someone to punch her in the face, or for the Pixar twist to be having her killed off. no wonder your child has such a complex. And for a culture that already deals with the negative Tiger mom stereotype, I don’t know why they put the pedal to the metal here.
Mei is adorkable for a 13 year old girl, really relatable, and probably one of the more realistic human characters Pixar has put on screen. Her mother, Ming, is a nightmare stereotype, that experiences no personal growth, and instead only becomes more and more overbearing, over protective, and stalks her daughter around like she has nothing to do. She’s constantly trying to get invited to whatever her daughter is doing, sneaking in to the school, and just in general being a nuisance. There is a father character here, but he’s given very little to do, as he must clearly be terrified of his wife. in the PG-13 version of this film, he definitely has a side piece.
Ming starts out at 200%, and increases to 1,000% by the films climax. It’s only then, that the film has to snap quickly, and give her any kind of semblance of a personality. Look, I know parents love their kids, and want the best for them, but Ming is such an over exaggerated version of this, and as the story plays out, you wonder what the hell is going on with her character arc?
It’s suggested that she had a similar relationship with her own mother, and that didn’t end up well… so she’s recreating that experience for her own daughter? Is Ming incapable of self awareness? When we do get a glimpse of a human inside this Ming, it’s shown as a version so similar to Mei that you almost wonder if the subtext is that abuse begets abuse.
If that’s not the message, then this is probably a period piece. Literally. Kudos to Disney for releasing such a forward thinking film, but at the same time, you could take the entire Red Panda as a metaphor for “time of the month” and the film actually works. in fact, the film leads you there, as Ming first assumes the problem with her daughter is that she’s finally had her period. But, instead of having a visit from the red fairy, she’s a red panda.
Just some thoughts. I think my point is that this film is a bit scattershot, where other Pixar movies have a better control over their characters, story arc, and intended moral and emotional impact.
The Blind Perspective: Really great narration, from a voice that seems well suited for kids films. She sounds like she’d be great at reading bedtime stories.
Final Thoughts: There were aspects I liked, and aspects I didn’t. It’s better than other Pixar fare like Cars 2 or The Good Dinosaur, but it’s not in the top echelon. Yes, it does try to reign in an emotional connection, but it almost feels too little too late. Most of it has to do with all of the great development Mei has, making her one of the strongest Pixar human characters, versus her mother Ming, who is one of the worst, least developed, and almost offensively stereotypical opposite. In Brave, the mother wasn’t the villain until the story needed her to be. Here, Ming feels like the villain the entire time.
Final Grade: C+