by Miguel E. Rodriguez
Director: Domee Shi
Cast: Rosalie Chiang, Sandra Oh, Wai Ching Ho, James Hong
My Rating: 10/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 95% Certified Fresh
PLOT: A 13-year-old girl named Meilin wakes up one morning with the rather inconvenient power to turn into a giant red panda whenever she gets too excited.
Disney/Pixar’s Turning Red is one of the best, funniest animated movies I’ve seen since Inside Out. Or The Lego Movie. Take your pick.
If you’ve seen the trailer, you know the plot. A 13-year-old Chinese-Canadian girl named Meilin [may-LINN] discovers one day she has the (inconvenient) ability to turn into a giant red panda.
Details: Meilin’s relationship with her mom, Ming (Sandra Oh), is complicated enough without this new tangle. Ming encourages Meilin to excel at everything and has enlisted her help with running and maintaining a small Chinese temple devoted to an ancient ancestor of theirs who supposedly channeled the power of the red panda to defend her children thousands of years ago.
When Meilin learns to control her newfound power to a certain degree, she decides to use it, not to fight crime, but to earn some money to buy a ticket to see this awesome boy band, called 4Town (even though they have five members), with her three besties. Like, Oh. Em. GEE!
Complications ensue, Meilin tells a crucial, heartbreaking lie at one point, and previously unsuspected powers are unleashed. That’s all you’re getting out of me, story-wise.
While the story was great, and worthy to stand with Pixar’s finest films, what made Turning Red stand out for me was the humor. It is just plain laugh-out-loud funny. I was laughing through almost the entire movie.
Through a completely believable misunderstanding, Meilin’s mom, Ming, thinks she knows what’s behind Meilin’s strange new behavior and asks her, ever so delicately, “Did the scarlet peony bloom?” There’s a brilliant moment when Ming chases Meilin to school and, in front of an entire classroom, holds up an item she forgot to pack in her bag: a box of pads. That’s right out of a John Hughes movie, man! I laughed like a maniac.
Meilin’s three friends are a treat, especially the little spitfire named Abby, whose face seems to be permanently stretched into a fierce scowl. There’s a moment when she catches one of those red playground balls with her teeth. Maybe SHE’S the monster.
As with all the best Pixar films, though, the humor, as effective as it is, is just window-dressing for the real thrust of the story. The exploration of the mother-daughter relationship hasn’t been done this well since Brave. And I’ve gotta say, it was refreshing to see how real the character of Meilin was. Because she’s rooted in the real world (of 2002 Toronto), her attitude felt more authentic somehow. Sure, in Brave, Merida had the same rebelliousness and determination to forge her own path despite an imposing mother figure. But with Turning Red, everything was more grounded.
There’s a moment when Meilin has turned into a panda and is running down a city street trying to hide. She passes a convenience store where a cute guy works the counter. She is desperate to get out of sight…but she stops just long enough to glance through the window at the cute guy, stomp her foot like Thumper, and yell, “Ah-OOO-gah, ah-OOO-gah!” Another big laugh. And I thought to myself, “See, that’s normally what you would see GUYS do in a movie. Who makes a Disney film about a girl obsessed with boys? What a treat!” (I know, I know, the early Disney princesses weren’t exactly models of modern feminism, I’m talking about more recent films, stay with me here…)
Naturally, there’s a lot of symbolism with Meilin being thirteen, coming of age, and suddenly going through all sorts of changes. What’s great about the storytelling is that the symbology is secondary, at least initially. There’s the usual very well-executed denouement where all the emotional threads come together. But before we get there, it’s just a story about a young girl with a weird problem. And I have to say again, it is doggone FUNNY.
I took a glance at the “rotten” reviews at rottentomatoes.com, and I kept seeing one repeated phrase among several of them: the lead character was “irritating.” I am at a loss to explain this point of view. Meilin is a 13-year-old girl. Of COURSE, she’s irritating. AND obnoxious. What were you expecting? Meilin is endearing precisely because she’s portrayed as someone who isn’t perfect, even though she’s trying hard to be. She lies to her parents. When she has to think of something to calm herself down, she doesn’t think of her mom…she thinks of her best friends. She feels bad about it, but what are you gonna do, she’s thirteen.
Further pontificating from me seems pointless. Take it from a lifelong Pixar fan. Turning Red is one of their finest moments. It’ll make you laugh, and if you’re not careful it’ll make you cry. It might make you remember what it was like to scream like crazy at a rock concert. It’ll make you remember your first real best friends. And it’ll make you wonder why more people don’t make movies like this. Because they should.