‘Turning Red’ Review: Teenage Exceptionalism Causes Pandamonium

Chike Coleman reviews the family-friendly and very entertaining Turning Red, from Pixar.
User Rating: 9

Turning Red is a great movie that showcases what it’s like growing up and centering that struggle around a Canadian-Chinese family. Directed by Domee Shi, the same talented director who directed and wrote the Oscar-winning short film, Bao. This feature-length story centers on Meilin Lee (Rosalie Chiang), a 13-year-old, high-achieving student in Toronto, Canada. She is the perfect daughter to her mother, who runs a temple in her neighborhood. This temple educates tourists on the Lee family history and the protectors of that family, red pandas. Meilin’s mother, Ming (Sandra Oh), is exceedingly protective of her daughter because she doesn’t want her child to become a delinquent or like boys.

Unfortunately for Ming, puberty waits for no one. Mei wants to be capable of making decisions independent of her parents. She is tired of being the good daughter, and due to pressure to be the best, she develops severe anxiety. This nervousness eventually manifests itself in the form of a giant red panda that she can turn into any time she is experiencing a high emotion. Initially, Mei and her friends are horrified by the idea that this panda is part of Mei’s life. Most of their fear and confusion comes from the fact that they don’t know how to support their friend. However, they soon realize their experiences with the panda could help them all go to a concert to see the boy band they love, 4*Town.

This charming Pixar film teaches young adults what it means to accept yourself and how and why it’s possible to embrace your independence. The real strength of this movie is Chiang’s performance as Mei. She lights up the screen with all of her self-confidence and pride in what she’s able to achieve. The audience can also feel bad for her when her anxiety and high emotions overwhelm her. Sandra Oh as Ming is always a standout. She loves being her daughter’s best friend. You can tell from the vocal performance how that shines through, so eventually, when she is disappointed by her daughter’s decisions and that emotion changes, it comes through as authentic.

The main issue of this film is that it very carefully dances the line between stereotyping Chinese Canadians and commenting on family acceptance. Pixar succeeds because it leans more toward having someone understand that they are still figuring out who they want to become, and sometimes they need to go through that journey on their own. The pressure to be great is immense when you’re a child, but it’s even worse when great things are constantly expected of you. Still, I think Turning Red is at its best when it focuses on that journey of independence rather than the pressure parents can put on a child.

The movie’s biggest surprise has nothing to do with the characters and everything to do with the 4*Town songs by Billie Eilish and Finneas O’Connell. To be completely frank, they managed to create the 00s pop songs of legend. They help build a fantastic soundtrack for all the emotions Mei and her friends are experiencing throughout the film.

The focus on tradition is what really grounds this animated film and allows it to truly soar to new heights. Without that clear idea, this movie would fall flat on its face. Instead, Turning Red has so many likable characters that it’s a world I would personally be willing to come back to at any point just to see how Mei grows and changes. Ultimately this movie proves that it’s great to break tradition if it means you’re going to find yourself in the end even if you don’t have life figured out yet. There’s always growing to do, and that’s a message I can get behind. Families should enjoy this one.

Turning Red is now streaming on Disney+.

Written by
Chike has been a film critic in Illinois for the last 10 years with Urbana Public Television. Most of his work can be found on their YouTube channel where his show Reel Reviews is posted. The films he enjoys most are the kind that surprise you with characters that are deeper than you could ever suspect. As much as he loves reviewing it’s the stories that are unexpected that bring him the most joy. He lives in Champaign with his parents surrounded by cornfields.

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