Who remembers the emotional Bao, the award-winning short story by Pixar that accompanied the release of Incredibles 2? Its director, Domee Shi, who has contributed to several other Pixar films, returns as the director and co-writer of Turning Red, the 25th feature film by the animation studio.
Turning Red follows the story of Meilin “Mei/Mei-Mei” Lee, who one day finds out that she is “cursed” with the ability to turn into a giant red panda. Except she can’t control that ability and does so when she is over-excited, angry or stressed, having to be calm before turning back. There is only one way to contain the curse, and that’s with a special ritual that takes place on the rare night of a red moon. The problem? That’s the same night her favourite boyband 4* Town are holding a concert she and her friends desperately want to go to.
The first thing that struck me about the film was its diversity. Finally Pixar have a film depicting East Asian characters and culture, after the success of films that focussed on other cultures like Brave (which Turning Red is quite similar to), Coco, Soul and Luca. It also centres on a Canadian-Chinese family, drawing influence from Chongqing-born Domee Shi’s life growing up in Canada. There is even a character with diabetes and a Sikh character, two more firsts for Pixar. Mei’s friends are also a diverse bunch – Abby is of Korean descent (voiced by a Korean-Canadian), Priya is South Asian (voiced by a Tamil-Canadian) and Miriam is a tomboy. Newcomer Rosalie Chiang voices Mei, while seasoned Korean-Canadian star Sandra Oh plays her mother, Ming.
Some slight misgivings I had about this was that not only are Mei and Ming extremely commonly used names for Chinese characters, I found the stereotypes for them all too over-used as well. Mei is a studious over-achiever who feels she must be a good, dutiful daughter while Ming is an archetypal, overbearing “tiger mum”, obsessed with keeping her daughter on a tight leash. There are other lived experiences of the Chinese diaspora, you know! It is however, refreshing to see a red panda used to represent Chinese culture, a creature that has gained popularity in recent years and makes a nice change from the tried and tested giant panda and dragon that are often trotted out.
Furthermore, while I adore Sandra Oh and think she is a talented, well-deserving actress of the praise and accolades she has received, I can’t help but feel her casting was predominately for audience-appeasing purposes. The film is about Canadian-Chinese people, so why not pick a Canadian-Chinese or any other actress of Chinese descent to play Ming? They do exist. I have always been of the opinion that the hiring of actors with different but “similar” ethnicities when the characters’ ethnicities and cultural background are an integral part of them and the film, is sloppy. Representation is deeper and more multi-faceted than people think and by elevating Sandra Oh further up the ladder of stardom potentially prevents many other talents from getting their big break. This is similar to Gemma Chan and Awkwafina getting many roles in big blockbuster films after their success in a couple, while a vast number of other British-Chinese and American-Chinese actresses still struggle to be seen.
There has also been some backlash from eagle-eyed viewers, particularly Korean people, who have noticed a cultural mistake in Turning Red. Some have accused Korean-American co-writer Julia Cho and Domee Shi’s misunderstanding or lack of awareness about traditional Chinese and Korean cultures and folklore being the reason a conflation of the two was made in one particular scene. This shows that authenticity as well as representation is extremely important and imperative to get right.
Those issues aside, Turning Red is a joyous rollercoaster of a journey through the life of a young girl as she comes of age. It deftly deals with the themes of controlling one’s emotions, understanding and accepting one’s cultural heritage, juggling and coming to terms with multiple identities, the ups and downs of a mother-daughter relationship, and womanhood. And although its representation isn’t quite on the mark all the time, it’s another bamboo tree jump forward for East Asian children and adults alike who can relate to some aspects of it on one level or another.
Two scenes that stood out, especially for a Pixar film, were the references to more PG topics. When Mei first turns into a red panda and locks herself in the bathroom, her parents are concerned, unsure of what has happened but Ming says to Mei’s father Jin “it’s happening”. This could be a reference to the “curse” which she hadn’t yet told Mei about but also puberty and menstruation as Mei is of that age, though that is mentioned several times. The other is the scene in which Ming gets the wrong end of the stick and angrily confronts Mei’s crush from the Daisy Mart, accusing him of “taking advantage” of her. This reference to potential sexual abuse is a first for Pixar that I’m surprised made it into the final cut of Turning Red’s script.
However, when you look at the more mature films they’ve previously put out like Up (mentions grief), Inside Out (revolves around emotions and mental health), Soul (deals with the ideas of death and the afterlife), and Luca (allegedly alludes to homosexuality), you do appreciate Pixar’s tendency to push boundaries, if quite subtly, especially in comparison to most Disney films.
Cute and fluffy like the red panda in real life, but fiery and emotional, Turning Red will surely have audiences turning red with laughter themselves at the mishaps Mei gets into as she tries to find her true self under all the fur. Even if you don’t identify as part of the East Asian community or aren’t even from Toronto where the film is set, there’s a lot to relate to and enjoy about Turning Red (but not if you’re this particular critic…).
Hopefully Turning Red’s viewership on Disney+ is strong enough to have it be considered a success for the studio and for the communities it represents, as it was unfortunately pulled from having a cinematic release due to various ongoing global issues. And in an additional nod to the Chinese community, the film is available in Cantonese and (Taiwanese) Mandarin as well as with Chinese subtitles, something Mulan failed to provide.