Friday, June 21, 2024

‘Turning Red’ Looks at Puberty and Assimilation

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Hollywood loves what is known as a four-quadrant movie. “Four quadrant movie” is a marketing term for a movie that appeals to all “four major demographics” of the movie-going audience. Unfortunately, this term is trotted out as an excuse to make a movie as bland, inoffensive, white, straight, and male as possible. Despite their recent push for inclusion, Disney as a company is possibly one of the biggest offenders of this philosophy.

Domee Shi reminds us with Turning Red that contradictory to corporate dogma, specificity in art often breeds more universality. More so than a megabudget IP carefully designed to do as little as possible for as long as possible. Shi infuses Turning Red with breathless energy while also plunging us into Meilin Lee’s (Rosalie Chiang) world so entirely that within seconds we are swept away into the magical land of Toronto, Canada.

turning red
Ming (Sandra Oh) and a recently transformed Meilin (Rosalie Chiang)

Co-written by Julia Cho, Turning Red is a title that contains multitudes. It could be inferring the cosmic heat of embarrassment we feel for Meilin, both at her own hands or her mother Ming’s (Sandra Oh). Undoubtedly, it is also a metaphor for puberty, which Shi and Cho heavily imply throughout the film the thirteen-year-old Meilin is going through. The most obvious is Meilin discovering that the women of her family are cursed to turn into giant red pandas when they get emotional.

Of course, this is meant to illustrate the hormonal confusion that is adolescence. Still, again Shi and Cho find another layer to smuggle into the story. The curse is not a curse, it is a blessing, stemming from when their ancestor Sun Yee begged the gods to give her the strength and courage of the red panda to protect her daughters. Eventually, the Yee’s came to the new world, and possibly and are now the Lee’s, and a blessing became a curse. What was accepted at home was frowned upon in the new land where they were forced to assimilate.

turning red
Left to Right: Abby (Hyein Park), Priya (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan), Meilin (Chiang), and Miriam (Ava Morse)

Assimilation and the intergenerational trauma tethered to it are one of the many threads running through Turning Red. Shi and Cho have it play off to the side of the primary plot — Meilin struggling with puberty — so it can be missed if you’re not paying attention. Not to mention watching poor Meilin stumble through her blossoming adolescence becomes an act of second-hand embarrassment cinema.

It doesn’t hurt that the voice acting is as pitch-perfect as the rest of the movie. Rosalie Chiang voices Meilin with such exuberance it breaks the heart to see her try and live up to her mother’s expectations. Likewise, Oh’s Ming sidesteps the “Tiger Mom” stereotype by giving her a buried layer of regret and fear that drives her decisions, giving us a glimpse of why she behaves the way she does. 

I was delighted to hear the voice of the legendary James Hong, a character actor with over six hundred roles to his credit. Yes, Mr. Gao is a minor role, but Hong’s voice is unmistakable, as is the hint of mischief he lends to his character. 

Thankfully, Meilin has her friends, the monotone Priya (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan), excitable Abby (Hyien Park), and tomboy Miriam (Ava Morse), to help her through the ups and downs of her “curse.” Oh, and her love of 4-Town, a boyband that dominates’ the girls’ lives. Turning Red shows how people code-switch, whether it’s at home with family or in school with their friends. 

Shi and Cho’s script is deceptively simple. The plot is Meilin and her friends wanting to go to a 4-Town concert and using Meilin’s Red Panda transformation to make money for the tickets. It is at once a stereotypical plot for coming-of-age movies while being a brilliant vehicle for Shi and Cho to weave their multiple thematic threads into a kaiju-like spectacle with an emotional heft that had me weeping.

turning red
Meilin and her friends living it up

Turning Red feels immediate in a way most Pixar movies, while top-tier quality, don’t often have. This comes from the real-world aspect, Meilin’s sheer vitality, and the narrative itself. The animation is alive in a way that feels fresh, at times borrowing from Anime and manga, adding a more exaggerated and inventive look to the movie.

I loved how the animators pay attention to details like how food is prepared and how parents will use food as symbols of their love. One scene has Meilin’s dad Jin (Orion Lee) cooking food, and it is the closest the film comes to attempting to be ultra-realistic. Reader, I don’t mind telling you my mouth was watering as Shi and her animators lovingly captured the preparation of a meal that seemed to almost leap off the screen.

While Shi and her animators may be borrowing from anime styles, they also blend it with a deft sense of realism. In other words, the characters, specifically Meilin and her friends, are shaped and drawn realistically, each having their unique size and shape. But it also contributes to the sheer exuberance that bursts from every cell of the movie. As a result, Turning Red feels alive and unpredictable as it races from one scene to the next with a vibrant sense of breathless joy.

I’ve seen Turning Red a few times and have cried each time. The film flies by so quickly it feels like a short film. However, Shi, Cho, and the animators find ways to sneak little pangs of sadness and regret throughout the movie that allows moments to surprise you with their weight. 

Images courtesy of Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

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