Producer: Lindsay Collins Director: Domee Shi Screenplay: Julia Cho and Domee Shi Cast: Rosalie Chiang, Sandra Oh, Ava Morse, Hyein Park, Maitreyi Ramakrishnan, Orion Lee, Wai Ching Ho, Tristan Allerick Chen, Lori Tan Chinn, Mia Tagano, Sherry Cola, Lillian Lim, James Hong, Addie Chandler, Jordan Fisher, Finneas O’Connell, Topher Ngo, Grayson Villanueva and Josh Levi Distributor: Disney+
Sometimes a filmmaker can say things more cogently in eight minutes than a hundred. In 2018 Domee Shi made Pixar’s animated short “Bao,” an affecting tale of the estrangement between mother and child in the form of a simple fable about a woman and a bao bun come to life. Now she has directed her first feature, which treats of the same theme in a far more elaborate, but peculiarly confused, fashion. Despite, or perhaps because of, its greater length and complexity “Turning Red” is less satisfying than Shi’s Oscar-winning miniature.
It’s cast as a coming-of-age story about Meilin “Mei” Lee (voiced by Rosalie Chiang), a thirteen-year old Chinese-Canadian girl. It’s 2002, and she lives in Toronto with her father Jin (Orion Lee), a gentle homebody, and her mother Ming (Sandra Oh), an intrusive, overprotective though loving parent who comes perilously close to being a tiger mom. The family’s income apparently—and implausibly—derives from a temple Ming runs, devoted to the veneration of gods and the family ancestors. The most famous of the latter is Sun Yee, a polymath and warrior who had a special relationship with the red panda, which is believed to have blessed her female descendants with a special gift—one, though, that some might consider more of a curse.
Mei is a good kid, a high achiever who gets great grades and is always helping Ming with the temple’s upkeep. But she’s also undergoing the changes every adolescent girl does. She’s developed a crush on Devon (Addie Chandler), a boy who clerks at the local convenience store who’s oblivious to her attention, and she and her school pals–Miriam (Ava Morse), Priya (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan) and Abby (Hyein Park)—are devoted to dreamy boy band 4*TOWN (Jordan Fisher, Topher Ngo, Grayson Villanueva and Josh Levi), whose upcoming concert they plan to attend despite the high cost of tickets.
Things are thrown into flux after Ming discovers the doodles Mei has been drawing of her crush in her notebook and makes a scene at the store. That causes her daughter such turmoil that—shades of Kafka!—she wakes up the next morning changed into a giant red panda. Ming initially thinks that Mei’s consternation results from having her first period, but then realizes it’s the ancestral blessing at work. When agitated the family’s women turn into the critter with whom Sun Yee had enjoyed a special bond.
Mei is horrified, but finds that by calming down she can return to her normal form. Of course, it’s difficult for her to avoid getting excited from time to time, and part of the fun derives from her unexpected transformations and the lengths she must go to avoid or reverse them. And there’s a benefit: rather than terrifying her classmates, the panda delights them, and they’re willing to pay for sessions with her or—in the case of obnoxious classmate Tyler (Tristan Allerick Chen)—for an appearance at his birthday party, enough to cover the cost of the concert tickets.
Ming has other ideas, reflective of her own bad experience with the panda. She wants Mei to submit to an ancient ritual that will banish the cutesy critter. But it can only be held at the red moon, which will next appear on the same night as the concert she’s desperate to attend. And there’s the fact that the more often the panda gets loose before then, the greater the likelihood that the ritual won’t take. News of what’s happening also attracts the girl’s imperious grandmother (Wai Ching Ho), who barrels in from Florida with a bevy of “aunties” to oversee the ceremony conducted by Mr. Gao (veteran James Hong).
There’s pleasure to be had in much of this. The camaraderie and diversity of Mei’s posse—Miriam is Caucasian, Priya Mei’s Indo-Canadian and Abby Korean-Canadian—deliver a good message about friendship, and their interplay is often amusing. The panda, far from being fearsome, is like a plush toy come to life. The animation (supervised by Aaron Hartline, Patty Kihm and Christian Hoffman), eclectic in terms of influences, is bright and vibrant, Rona Liu’s production design, with the appropriate period detail, is lovely, and the cinematography by Mahyar Abousaeedi and Jonathan Pytko is everything one could hope for.
Yet even here there are problems. The relationship between Mei and Ming is supposed to be lovingly strained, but it’s actually uncomfortably so. The point is to prod the girl into finally liberating herself from her mother’s overzealous control, but Ming comes across as so much the helicopter mom that even Oh’s deft voicing can’t entirely endear her to us. Is Ming’s temple really profitable enough to support the family, and why is so prominent a place in it devoted to an entity she aims to eliminate from her daughter’s life? And, of course, there’s the central matter of the transformation itself. It’s the result of magic, but is also meant as a metaphor for menstruation. Does that mean that Ming’s attempt to eradicate it from Ming’s life puts her in the same category as Carrie’s mother?
Still, the first two-thirds of the film are much more good than not. It’s the final third, which juxtaposes the ritual, with its chants and clattering instruments, against the boy band concert at Toronto’s SkyDome (the squeaky-clean quintet’s cheekily catchy numbers are by Billie Eilish and Finneas O’Connell, which is bound to boost sales). But that’s not all: it turns into a goofy giant-panda Godzilla picture, an extravaganza that will come to be referred to as an apocalypse. It’s here that the visual effects supervised by Danielle Feinberg come into play, the editing by Nicholas C. Smith and Steve Bloom goes into overdrive, and Ludwig Göransson’s score gets a workout. By the close there are multiple pandas running about (which leads one to wonder about the efficacy of that ritual) and happy endings all around.
One’s likely to conclude that Shi and her co-writer Julia Cho have tried to cram too much into their film: the combination of red panda whimsy, middle school hijinks, Chinese mysticism, boy band nostalgia, mother-daughter reconciliation, monster movie and adolescent maturation proves an unstable, even jarring mixture of farce, serious reflection and nostalgia trip. Moreover the ultimate message to all the brouhaha is unclear: apparently one must learn to control the impulses that rise up in yourself, but at the same time embrace them when it’s right to be assertive. But the sort of emotional balance the film sees as maturity is never really portrayed.
So while “Turning Red” is ambitious, like many of Pixar best films, unlike them it winds up overstuffed and undercooked. It would have benefited from some of the simplicity of “Bao.”
But little girls and their mothers will probably find its spirit of female feistiness appealing, even if it makes others a mite queasy.