‘Turning Red’ is a sweet charming journey into teenage independence

Turning Red impresses with a hilarious coming-of-age tale about being true to one’s self in the face of adversity…even if that adversity is your own mother.

Director/writer Domee Shi makes her feature film debut after directing the marvelous short Bao in 2018. Shi takes us back to the wonderful year of 2002 for a modern fantasy tale that is as hilarious as it is heartwarming.

Meiling Lee (Rosalie Chiang) is a 13-year-old girl living in Toronto doing what teenage girls do. She draws cute guys, feeds her virtual pet, and obsesses over the boy band 4*Town with her friends. This is to the chagrin of her mother Ming Lee (Sandra Oh) who does not want her daughter involved with such things. After an embarrassing moment with her mother, Mei wakes up to find she has turned into a giant red panda. Mei freaks and flips as her mom try to calm her. Once known, a family secret comes to light that changes her perception of her world and her life. Mei struggles to figure out if she can control the panda inside her before the big 4*Town concert at the SkyDome.

Mei (Rosalie Chiang) reveals her panda form to her friends Abby, Miriam, and Priya.
Source: Disney/Pixar

Turning Red is delightful. It’s uproarious in humor and tackles what it means to finally grow into the person you are. The animation is stellar going off the beaten path by keeping a simple cartoon look in the same way as last year’s charmer Luca. The characters are dynamite. Mei’s friend Abby, who is hyper-intense all the time, had me howling with her expressions. Mei and her group are pre-teens to teen girls and they reminded me of kids I used to work with during my tutor days. Miriam in particular reminded me of my younger sister right down to the style and personality. They are a fantastic reflection of young teens despite what some white cis dude would have you believe. I adore them all and have their own traits and personality, but together, they are wonderful pals.

Meiling is such a fun addition to the Pixar lineup of main characters. She is so ready to take on the world but in a way she can still please her mother. Yet, she struggles with her wanting to break the mold to be her own self. It’s shown when she is in Panda form as she worries about how she may be seen. When it goes in a way she didn’t expect, she feels happy with her new self. Chiang does a great job with her vocal performance as well.

Ming (Sandra Oh) is unsure of what she is about to see with Mei (Rosalie Chiang) hiding in the shower. Source: Disney/Pixar

As for the mother Ming, Oh has amazing comedic delivery. I love when she sees 4*Town for the first time. She calls them “hip-hoppers” and questions their gyrating. She reminded me of my own mom as a kid. She’s also overprotective but in such a funny way. When Mei’s Panda form first appears, Ming gets stressed that her period is here and is prepared for anything. She shows up outside Mei’s class’ window with a stack of every type of pad known to man leading to Mei being embarrassed as hell. Having grown up raised by my mother and with my sisters, I was on the floor rolling having seen similar situations in front of me.

I love how the mention of period and pads were so natural because, guess what dudes, they are. I can see young girls latch on to this film because it covers what they are going through so well. It’s very much needed for the target audience to see a reflection of who they are on the big screen. This is not another Princess type, but someone real and relatable. The film works by honing in on what it means to be going through puberty and that transition into teenage life. It’s the very heart of the film that almost shatters the relationship between Mei and her mom due to Mei’s independence. Even Mei’s “aunties” have their own crosses to bear while allowing themselves to be free. I was tearing up at a significant moment in the film as it showed how much damage was dealt due to not being able to be independent and be accepted for it. It reminded me of my mom and my older sister’s relationship when we were younger. There was a constant back and forth and power struggles. Yet, there was love at the end of the day. I even had my own struggles with my mom over wanting to be free and myself. It hit close to the chest and I was a weeping mess.

Jesse (FINNEAS), Tae Young (Grayson Villanueva), Robaire (Jordan Fisher), Aaron T. (Topher Ngo), and Aaron Z. (Josh Levi) make up the boy band 4*Town. Source: Disney/Pixar

The looks and the songs of 4*Town captured the Boy Band era with perfection. My older sister was obsessed with boy bands with her heart set on the Backstreet Boys. I love boy bands too, but I was definitely the *NSYNC fan of the two. I love that they share a similar name with the Making the Band group O-Town because I feel those two would be beefing in 2002. These songs are absolute bangers right down to the use of the pop chords. Billie Elish and Finneas O’Connell (aka FINNEAS) did a phenomenal job bringing these throwbacks into the world. Jordan Fisher’s magnificent voice also helped carry them to beautiful heights. They are also hilarious in how cheesy they are. The line “I’ve had friends and buddies, it’s true/But they don’t turn my tummy like you” has me smiling when I sing it. I’ve been singing and listening to the 4*Town tunes since my viewing of the film. I’m not even embarrassed. 4*Town 4Eva.

Turning Red is a sweet charming journey into teenage independence that doesn’t hold back on humor and heart.

Review Score: 4.5 out of 5

Turning Red is streaming exclusively on Disney Plus and rated PG for thematic material, suggestive content, and language.

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