‘Turning Red’ Review: Beware the Red-Furred Monster

In Domee Shi’s heartwarming but errant coming-of-age film, a 13-year-old girl turns into a red panda when she loses her cool.

In many ways, 13-year-old Rosalie Chiang is just like any other girl her age: she likes to dance, she has crushes on young boys, and she has a group of quirky but dedicated friends who share her obsession with the members of the glossy-lipped child band 4 * Town.

She is also a Chinese Canadian; in 2002, she and her family settled in Toronto, where they maintain a shrine. There, she helps out her loving but haughty mother, Ming (Sandra Oh), and tries to be the perfect little girl,

even if that means suppressing her own thoughts and desires. When she goes through her changes, not the human-to-panda variety, this becomes considerably more challenging. The individuality

Domee Shi’s directed short “Turning Red” excels primarily in the areas of creation and layout. Mei has the endearing arrogance of the popular nerd from middle school; she’s smart, creative, and self-assured. Mei’s cool trinity of girl friends consists of the gamine skater girl Miriam, the deadpan Priya, and the blissfully intense Abby.

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And Ming Finds an Excellent Balance Between Autocratic and Amative

rejecting Mei’s friends and passions but simultaneously following her about campus to layer her with ready-to-be-tied buns. Shi finds

From Mei’s grandmother’s (Ho-Wai Ching) stiffly applied make-up to the flashy open-toed shoes of the band of aunties that follow Grandma Lee about, the film uses subtle yet dependable techniques to portray the individualities of even the secondary characters.

The motion of Mei’s panda form, with her hair lying flat when she’s calm and standing on end when she’s insane, complements these alterations in her psyche. It should come as no surprise that Shi’s teachings shine brightest in this context, when applied to this kind of language;

Like her Oscar-winning Pixar short “Bao” from 2018, “Turning Red” focuses on the central emotional bond between a mother and her child as the latter prepares to leave home. Like in “Bao,” where a mother brings up a child symbolised by a bun from infancy to adulthood, Shi employs a culturally specific metaphor in this work to convey the feelings of her characters.

Plot

This is where “Turning Red” gets thorny: the red panda magic of the plot has its roots in the characters’ social practises (the Lees honour an ancestor who defended her family with the power of a red panda), but it isn’t enough to rid the film of its kid-friendly variety of exoticism. Still, the show’s stars are a major draw.

The women in Mei’s family are the antagonists since they are at the heart of the film’s conflict. Or, more accurately, the stifling gender norms and home assumptions that women represent.

Given that these women all suffer from the same red panda disease, it’s safe to assume that they all fit into a stereotype of icy, uncaring Asian women.

This is especially true given that Mei’s grandmother is treated to the kind of dubious opening scene you’d normally associate with the mob movie’s executive. Is the film subverting or embracing the typecasting?

The boundaries are too fuzzy to provide any useful information. In the end, with some education, compassion, and a pandapocalypse, we learn that the peaceful Asian dames aren’t the problem’s only victims, like Mei.

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However, I wonder how the film would have turned out if the issue hadn’t been isolated to the gender of these women. Despite its disarray, “Turning Red” employs tasty morsels, such as a few references to the early 2000s (Tamagchis and the craze for K-pop before BTS).

The songs in 4 * Town are perfect recreations of popular songs from the 2000s and are instantly recognisable thanks to Billie Eilish and her brother, Finneas O’Connell. Sad to say, “Turning Red” fumbles in its storytelling, but at least it has fun when it lets its hair down. The Red Tide Gets a PG Rating.

Duration: 1 hour and 39 minutes. Catch it on Disney+.