Editor’s Note: This review is spoiler-free.
Emotions can be a bear and, once you throw in the crazy chaos that is puberty, it becomes a monster. However, finding a kid’s film that explains how to reel in the monster that comes out once a month is nigh impossible. However, with Disney and Pixar’s latest film, TURNING RED, parents may have a film that fits as a metaphor for menstruation. Interwoven in this tale, though, is also a story that many will relate to about the complicated bond between mother and daughter when co-dependency is thrown into the mix. You know, standard Disney and Pixar subject matter.
TURNING RED is directed by Domee Shi in her feature directorial debut, from a screenplay written by herself and Julia Cho. The film stars the voices of Rosalie Chiang (Soiled), Sandra Oh (Umma), Ava Morse (Ron’s Gone Wrong), Maitreyi Ramakrishnan (“Never Have I Ever”), Hyein Park (Soul), Orion Lee (First Cow), Wai Ching Ho (“The Defenders”), and James Hong (Everything Everywhere All at Once).
In TURNING RED, we meet Mei Lee (Rosalie Chiang). She’s a confident and dorky 13-year-old that many will find relatable from the get-go. Obsessed by boy bands of millennial youth, Mei Lee and her friends have plenty to deal with. However, Mei Lee also has to handle the weighted expectations from her mother, Ming (Sandra Oh), hitting the role of dutiful daughter every single day. One day, her mother goes too far in trying to protect her daughter, resulting in an incredibly embarrassing incident. The inciting incident serves as the spark (among other things) needed for Mei Lee’s sudden transformation into the most adorable Snorlax-sized red panda. Needless to say, this causes issues.
Firstly, Domee Shi had the devil’s task in replicating the feeling of the early 2000s here. In all Disney and Pixar projects, the devil is always in the details, and it’s the things that bring unexpected joy sometimes. Not knowing that TURNING RED was set in 2002, seeing Tamagotchis and magazines reminiscent of Tiger Beat took me back. While the details visually help to take the audience into that time, it isn’t done in an overbearing way, which can sometimes be a distraction.
As the storyline goes, it’s a tale that will feel familiar to many. It’s told in a way, though, that is funny, exciting, and entertaining. How Shi and Julia Cho balanced the different levels of emotion that needed to be hit was done excellently. Arguably, it’s a gentle rollercoaster ride compared to previous Disney and Pixar works, but that doesn’t mean that anyone is spared an emotional journey. The thorough line of Mei Lee’s relationship with her mother is the glue that holds things together here, and the focal point once you strip away the adorable red panda shenanigans.
The vocal performances are a notable standout in TURNING RED, with many from the cast nailing it. Rosalie Chiang’s Mei Lee is an easy character fave, with Chiang up to the task of hitting the wild swings of emotion the character gets hit with. The vocal chemistry between Rosalie Chiang, Ava Morse, Maitreyi Ramakrishnan, and Hyein Park is gold. Each of them bouncing off of each other how you would imagine this group of friends would do. Honestly, seeing these characters vibe onscreen took me back to my days in middle and high school. So this is to say that between the casting, direction, and vocal performances, these four have it in the bag.
Sandra Oh also stands out as Ming, Mei Lee’s mother. Many will find Ming familiar as well, especially the type of codependency we see play out onscreen. Oh has to manage the balancing act of emotions Ming carries, which is no easy feat vocally. When we reach a certain moment in the film, you can’t help but wonder whether or not Oh physically acted out these moments as well. Because, from a vocal standpoint, she was all in.
Overall, TURNING RED is a fun, hilarious tale that tackles the subject matter of puberty and life transitions with big fuzzy aplomb. However, don’t get too distracted by the fun. This film has a lot to say about the struggle of balancing familial expectations against our own wants and needs. Again, many will find this particular thorough line to be relatable, especially those of us who balance with those expectations still. For a Disney and Pixar film, this hits a certain balance of fun and thoughtful that will attract both parents and kids. The rewatchability factor on this is high and, despite it being set in the early 2000s, feels almost timeless. TURNING RED manages the balancing act between humor, 2000s nostalgia, and seriousness, with its heartfelt story shining past the red panda exterior.
Oh, and if you need some more boyband moments, make sure you check out the soundtrack for TURNING RED. You won’t regret it.
TURNING RED is premiering exclusively on Disney+ March 11, 2022
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