The themes that filmmaker Domee Shi touched on (in only seven minutes) in her brilliant, Oscar-winning animated 2018 short, “Bao” – about a young man struggling to cut apron strings in the face of powerful, maybe even suffocating maternal expectations – get a full-blown workout in “Turning Red,” her richly layered, thematically bold feature-length animated follow-up.
Here, those themes have become even more personal: The son is now a daughter: 13-year old protagonist Meilin “Mei Mei” Lee (voice of Rosalie Chiang), the child of Chinese immigrants, growing up in 2002 Toronto and just discovering the wonders of the opposite sex. Shi, who was born in China in 1989, moved to Canada at an early age, and was raised, like the character Mei Mei, in the shadow of the city’s iconic CN Tower.
Among other things, the film is a semi-autobiographical love letter to the director’s adopted city: home to Canada’s largest immigrant community, and here populated by a tapestry of characters who are not just from Asia, but the Caribbean, Eastern Europe and the Indian subcontinent.
In short, the hyper-specificity of the film’s temporal, geographic and cultural setting – vividly rendered, as we have come to expect from a Pixar film – makes “Turning Red” seem like a version of Shi’s own coming-of-age story. Except for one thing. Mei Mei wakes up one day to discover that she has turned into a giant red panda.
In “Bao,” the son was represented, less literally, as an anthropomorphic bao, or Chinese steamed bun, but only in his mother’s dream. Here, the transformation is quite literal. When Mei Mei changes back to human form – her temporary, werewolf-like metamorphosis is triggered by strong emotion and can be undone by calming down – her once-black hair remains a bright, flame red.
The metaphorical implications are fascinating and, considering this is a Disney film, rather audacious. When Mei Mei confesses to her mother Ming (Sandra Oh) – haltingly, and without specifics – that a change has come over her body, Mom’s first reaction is understandable. “Did the red peony bloom?” Ming asks her daughter, euphemistically referring to the onset of puberty and offering an armful of feminine hygiene products.
“You’re now a beautiful, strong flower who must protect your delicate petals and clean them regularly,” she adds in one of the film’s more hilarious examples of motherly misunderstanding and circumlocution. But despite the biological implications suggested by its title, “Turning Red” is much more than a menstrual PSA.
It turns out that all the Lee women share Mei Mei’s predicament: a magical inheritance from an ancestor who possessed the ability to become a red panda to protect her people. Today, all of Mei Mei’s female relatives – her aunts and grandmother (Wai Ching Ho) – have managed to contain the beast, as it were, via an ancient ritual.
On one overly simplistic level, “Turning Red” evokes and gives new meaning to the once-widespread sexist sobriquet for menstruation: the Curse. But Shi has a lot more to say. In a broad sense, “Turning Red” is, like “Bao,” about growing up, growing apart and growing into whoever you choose to become. For Mei Mei, that person is not the same tightly contained woman as her mother, or whom her mother wishes her to be.
Ming is Shi’s answer to the perfectionist Tiger Mother: a Panda Mom, as it were. On one level, Mei-Mei is simply becoming a teenager: “I like boys,” she defiantly declares at one point, “I like loud music, I like gyrating. I’m 13 – deal with it.” The film’s main plot concerns the efforts of Mei-Mei and her friends to attend a concert by 4Town, a fictional boyband whose spot-on PG love songs were written by Finneas O’Connell and his sister Billie Eilish, and include the amusing lyric:
“I’ve never met nobody like you. Had friends and I’ve had buddies, it’s true. But they don’t turn my tummy the way you do.” Zooming out even further, “Turning Red” delivers a bigger and in some ways more universal message: It’s OK to not always be in control, to let your freak flag fly.
To paraphrase Sigmund Freud, sometimes a red panda is just a red panda. And sometimes it’s a metaphor for that inner spark of creativity, the flame of originality that is to be cherished, not extinguished. With “Turning Red,” Shi demonstrates that she’s got it – in spades.
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