'Turning Red' review: Pixar confronts the messiness of adolescence In Pixar's new animated film, a Chinese Canadian girl awakens one morning to find that she's turned into an enormous panda. Turning Red provides a lot to look at — and a lot of ideas to grapple with.


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'Turning Red' confronts the messiness of adolescence with refreshing honesty

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This is FRESH AIR. The new Pixar animated film "Turning Red" tells the story of a young Chinese Canadian teenager who awakens one morning to find that she's transformed into a big red panda.

Our film critic Justin Chang says the movie, now streaming on Disney+, is one of Pixar's most original recent efforts.

JUSTIN CHANG, BYLINE: Three years ago, the writer-director Domee Shi won an Oscar for her delightful Pixar animated short "Bao." In telling the sweet and surreal story of a Chinese Canadian mother and a steamed dumpling that comes to life, it captured something funny and poignant about the cultural and generational differences that can divide Asian immigrant families. With her first feature, "Turning Red," she leans further into the complexities of Asian parent-child relationships, and this time, she's come up with an even wilder conceit. If you were to mash together "Carrie" and "The Joy Luck Club" and somehow still get away with a PG rating, it might look a bit like this movie.

The story is set in the early 2000s, and it follows a 13-year-old girl named Meilin Lee, voiced by Rosalie Chiang, who lives in Toronto's Chinatown. Mei is an obedient overachiever, a straight-A student who spends her free time helping her parents run a temple built to honor their Chinese ancestors. While Mei's father is shy and mostly stays out of the way, her mother, Ming, a terrific Sandra Oh, is attentive to the point of overbearing. In addition to being super involved with Mei's studies, Ming rigorously polices her daughter's social life in hopes that she won't be too influenced by Western ways.

But while Mei may look like the perfect daughter, like any teenager, she has interests of her own. She's starting to notice boys, and she and her friends are particularly obsessed with an NSYNC-style boy band. And then one morning, in a twist that riffs on Kafka's "The Metamorphosis" and countless werewolf movies, she discovers that she's turned into an enormous red panda with bright red-orange fur and a long bushy tail. She promptly flips out.


SANDRA OH: (As Ming Lee) Breakfast is ready. No sugar.


ROSALIE CHIANG: (As Meilin Lee, groaning) Coming.


CHIANG: (As Meilin Lee) Porridge. (Yawning).


CHIANG: (As Meilin Lee) Ahh.


CHIANG: (As Meilin Lee) This isn't happening. This isn't happening. Ohhh.


CHIANG: (As Meilin Lee) Blegh. Ohhh. Wake up. Wake up. Wake up.

OH: (As Ming Lee) Mei Mei, is everything OK?

CHIANG: (As Meilin Lee) Don't come in here.


OH: (As Ming Lee) What's going on, honey?


OH: (As Ming Lee) Are you sick? Is it a fever, a stomachache, chills, constipation?

CHIANG: (As Meilin Lee) No.

OH: (As Ming Lee) Wait. Is it that? Did the red peony bloom?

CHIANG: (As Meilin Lee) No. Maybe?

OH: (As Ming Lee, gasping).

CHANG: That last line from Ming isn't the story's only reference to periods. This is surely the first Pixar movie to feature sanitary pads as a plot device. Director Shi, who wrote the script with Julia Cho, confronts the messiness of adolescence with an honesty that's refreshing in the world of studio animation. Mei's transformation is clearly a metaphor for the onset of puberty, when your body betrays you and becomes unrecognizable overnight.

But it's a metaphor for something else, too. As it turns out, the red panda effect is the result of some very ancient Chinese magic that's been passed down to Mei through the women in her family. It may be a ridiculous setup, but as in most Pixar movies, even the most outlandish plot devices have their own narrative logic. Mei soon figures out that her panda persona is triggered by intense emotions. Whenever she calms down, she turns back into her human self. Her mom instructs her to suppress her feelings and the panda along with it. But then something funny happens. Her friends find out about the panda, and rather than being weirded out by it, they think it's the cutest, coolest thing ever. Soon, Mei is newly popular and having the time of her life, and she starts to wonder, what if the panda, far from being some shameful aberration, is actually the truest expression of her happy, goofy, emotional self?

And so "Turning Red" tells a story about shame, repression and social anxiety, areas that I, like more than a few Asian Americans, know a thing or two about. During the movie, I found myself sometimes wincing in recognition at Mei's tension and embarrassment as she's torn between her family and friends. I also balked at moments that seemed to exaggerate for comic effect, especially when it came to Mei's mother, who's clearly been conceived along the lines of the controversial tiger mom stereotype.

All of which is to say that "Turning Red" gives you a lot of ideas to grapple with. It also gives you a lot to look at. Director Shi and her collaborators have a lot of fun incorporating East Asian influences into the story and animation. You can see touches of Japanese anime in the character design. Mei's panda has the fluffy, oversized proportions of Hayao Miyazaki's Totoro. The action-heavy climax manages to salute Kaiju movies like "Godzilla" and martial arts epics like "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon." "Turning Red" knows that teenage life can sometimes feel like a monster movie. And sometimes it's an action movie. And now happily, it's a Pixar movie and one of the bolder ones to come along in a while.

BRIGER: Justin Chang is film critic for the LA Times. He reviewed the new film "Turning Red." On Monday's show, we welcome back Seth Meyers, the host of NBC's "Late Night With Seth Meyers," a former head writer and anchor of "SNL's" Weekend Update and now the author of a new children's book called "I'm Not Scared, You're Scared." I hope you can join us.


BRIGER: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our senior producer today is Roberta Shorrock. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering support by Joyce Lieberman, Julian Herzfeld and Al Banks. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Joel Wolfram. Our producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. For Terry Gross, I'm Sam Briger.


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