“Turning Red”: Making Your Own Moves


Source: THR

Will Teare

Director: Domee Shi

Starring: Rosalie Chiang, Sandra Oh, Ava Morse, with Jordan Fisher and Wai Ching Ho

Release Date: March 11, 2022

Rating: 4/5

Turning Red is absolutely delightful. We follow Meilin “Mei” Lee (Rosalie Chiang), an energetic, 13-year-old Chinese-Canadian high achiever with a whole lot of personality. She goes about 2002 Toronto listening to 4*TOWN with her girls, behaving under a helicopter mom (Sandra Oh), and dealing with all the troubles of being an adolescent girl… but there’s a twist. When Mei can’t control her emotions, whether it’s anger, sadness, excitement, you name it… she turns into a giant red panda.

Domee Shi makes history by being the first woman to direct a Pixar film after making Bao, the Oscar-winning short film. I was a massive fan of Bao and was crazily excited to see her direct her first feature. Her direction is easily the star of this whole operation. The film, like Mei, has a never-ending enthusiasm and well of energy that’s so easily infectious. Not only that, but Domee’s ability to take a kids’ movie and bring it down to such an intimate, experience-inspired, human (and more importantly, female) level is so cool to see. 

Domee Shi clearly bases so much of this on personal experience; there are so many specific scenes pulled from the reality of growing up in 2002 Toronto as the daughter of Chinese immigrants. The scenes of her drawing boys, obsessing over a boy band with friends, or even getting her period. This movie really touched me in how they even mentioned menstruation in the first place. Practically half the planet’s population go through that, but oddly enough, it’s such a taboo subject for so many people. I feel like some young girl seeing that in a Pixar movie will be so impacted and comforted to know that it’s a thing that happens to so many people outside of herself. 

Now here’s the flip side, people have said it’s “just a simple kid movie” or “I can’t relate because it’s for other people, a different demographic.” These are extremely narrow opinions on art, but also disrespectful to Domee and her team. It’s not about whether something is “relatable” or not that indicates quality. Put yourself in someone’s shoes, and you will be able to tell whether or not a film about specific life experiences that are not your own is quality or not, and I assure you, this is quality. Besides, at its core, beyond pandas and the city of Toronto, it’s a touching story about the connection between mother and daughter. Mei is trying to be herself while also being her mother’s and is trying to find how to appease both sides of the same coin, and it’s more “relatable” than people would have you believe it to be. 

I’ve also seen some criticism of the “Calarts Style” (or “bean mouth style,” depending on who you ask) they go for in this movie, and I think that’s missing the intentionality of the character design and the animation as a whole. The film is anime and cartoon-inspired because the animators were inspired by anime and cartoons when they were growing up. This movie is unafraid to play with bold choices in lighting or unrealistic facial reactions because animated films do that. So you’ll have some action lines and beads of 2-D sweat. It’s also pulled from real people; Mei isn’t Raya or Moana or some anatomically perfect princess. Mei has some chubby cheeks, big teeth, patchy eyebrows, and more because that’s what Domme wanted. She said so herself in the behind-the-scenes documentary (I highly suggest that, by the way).

When I see Mei introduce her friends with a freeze-frame and their names, I know EXACTLY who they are. I can tell you a personality trait, why Mei loves them, and why they love Mei. That’s good character design. Also, Mei herself is an excellent piece of character design. Remember, animation is something you build from scratch; EVERYTHING is a choice. So when Mei struts, not walks, down a Chinatown street with a very stickered flute case, multiple hairpins, a Tamagotchi pinned to a backpack strap that she buckles to the other backpack strap? I can see everything I need to understand her as a person. 

Source: Wired

I also want to shout out a pretty good Ludwig Göransson score and the Finneas and Billie Elish 4*TOWN music. My main man Ludwig comes in hot after becoming one of the best new film composers of the century with things like Creed, Creed II, The Mandalorian, Tenet, and Black Panther, for which he secured an Academy AwardHere, he taps into a very light and poppy old hip-hop-inspired beat with a modern twist and additions of a flute in honor of Mei for a majority (this one is SO GOOD). He also brings some elements of traditional Chinese instruments with hip hop to musically show the dichotomy of Mei as a Canadian teen with Chinese roots(another Göransson banger). Finneas and Billie Elish round out the music with very cheesy but fitting early 2000’s boy band songs(sung by Jordan Fisher if you’re a fan). 

As for issues, I have three, but relatively minor. First, sometimes, the cringey kid humor with twerking or saying OMG in a movie set in 2002 took me out of it a bit, but it was a pretty minor thing considering kids of a certain age will think it’s funny/relatable, so no big deal. The Grandma is supposed to be important as she’s why Mei’s mom is who she is and is a vital part of the theme but seemed really tacked on for thematic/plot purposes. Lastly, sometimes they’ll add unnecessary things like the Aunts or something along the lines of that. It seemed cheap compared to the intentionality of the rest of the film. 

Otherwise, this is a phenomenal debut by Domee Shi, and I will be not-so-patiently waiting for whatever she does next. Rating: 4/5