By Wendy Wheeler
I’ve watched Turning Red twice now and enjoyed it both times. While it's not Pixar at its finest, it certainly entertains with solid voice acting and animation while subtly navigating pre-adolescent themes and it is a satisfying experience (especially if you’re old enough to catch the references to anime and the boy-band mania of the early ‘00s).
Domee Shi (Bao) proves to be a director with heart. You can tell how much she cares about the story and characters. The film really is a labor of her love, because the subject matter relates to her own life and will resonates with most mothers and daughters throughout the entire world.
As for the controversy that once surrounded this film, some were notably outraged when they first heard that Turning Red was going to talk about periods (beyond the obvious reference in its title). However, no one has been outraged to that same level (or at all, really) since the film’s release because Turning Red never explicitly mentions periods and briefly uses the words “pads” and “cramps” only in passing. You could blink and miss them.
Pixar has always aimed to have two levels of humor in their movies: one that kids can enjoy, and one that can’t be understood until you’re older. Rewatching Toy Story this year was the first time I really caught on to Bo-Peep asking Woody, “How about I get someone else to watch the sheep tonight?” It’s not a line that’s hidden or suppressed, and yet I never even noticed it until I was old enough to understand what it meant. However, as the mom, you know your kids better than anyone, so you know what they are and aren’t ready to see in a movie. If you’re still unsure, I always recommend watching it yourself first.
While watching the film’s final showdown made me wish Turning Red had gotten its chance on the big screen, seeing it on Disney’s streaming platform kind of brings out the family message. The central theme of the movie is about mother/daughter relationships, something to which any girl who’s 13 or older can relate. In Mei’s case, she has the added pressure of a tiger mom, Ming, who is herself still stuck in the exact same stifling relationship with her mother.
It’s a classic case of a daughter becoming the one person she most desperately didn’t want to be - her own mother. But in Turning Red, young Mei is determined not to make the same mistake. She manages to stand up to her mother (in a way Ming was never able to do) and say, “I’m going to be who I really am, and I need you to just see me and love me.”
Everyone knows moms and daughters have a thing. Daughters have to break away from their moms, and (even if unspoken) most mothers never stop being critical of their daughters. It’s a never-ending cycle. This movie is a story about catching that pattern early enough so that Mei and her mother can work together to break the cycle and maintain a positive relationship with each other.
The standout performances come from Rosalie Chaing (Clique Wars, Mr. Malcom’s List) as Meilin Lee, and Sandra Oh (Phineas & Ferb, Raya and the Last Dragon) as her mother Ming. Also strong is Orion Lee (007 Legends) as Mei’s dad, Jin, striving for peace between mother and daughter. And really, has James Hong (Kung Fu Panda, Mulan), who plays Mr. Gao, ever given a bad performance in his life?
Mei’s friends Miriam and Tyler, well played by Ava Morse and Tristan Allerick Chen respectively, certainly satisfy. Mei has two other friends in the story, Priya played by Maitreyi Ramakrishnan and Abby by Hyein Park. Their performances aren’t bad, but are unfortunately brought down by the lackluster writing of the two characters - each relegated to a single personality trait.
One of the main story points centers around the fictional boy band 4*Town, whose songs (written by real-life musicians Billie Eilish and her brother Finneas O’Connoll) are very convincing boy-band style earworms of 2002 - well done! The score by Ludwig Goransson (Black Panther, Tenet) moves things along well- the funky hip-hop beats of the early ‘00s mixed with traditional Chinese instruments is surprisingly toe-tapping.
Overall, it’s a very cute, charming euphemism for puberty and coming-of-age. It’s a small-scale film with a lot of heart and a good message: Mothers and daughters may need to grow apart as they get older, but they’ll always love each other, no matter what.
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