Panda Express Yourself — Turning Red
Earlier this month, I took the rare step of including Pixar’s latest movie, Turning Red, in the monthly “This Film is Not Yet Watchable” column. That almost seems like tempting the cinema gods, right? Saying that a trailer for a Pixar project looks bad? Pixar, the studio that’s only had maybe three misfires outside of the Cars franchise, might be releasing something substandard AND telegraphing it to audiences with an underwhelming trailer and pulling its theatrical release in favor of Disney+? It’s almost unthinkable.
I tried to keep that in mind when I bashed the trailer, because I knew the odds of the movie being objectively bad were low, but that didn’t mean there weren’t a ton of red flags, and I’m not even talking about all the Canadian and Chinese banners. The premise of Domee Shi’s feature debut (she previously won the Oscar for Animated Short for her 2018 film, Bao) looked like it was setting up a 90-minute period joke, the character designs looked like grotesque rejects from Aardman Studios, the main character seemed unnecessarily contradictory through narration and action, and worst of all, the entire motivation for the whole movie appeared to be boy band nostalgia.
Now that I’ve seen the movie, I’m pleased to report that while all those issues are indeed part of the picture, they’re not the entirety. They still intrude way more often than they should, bringing the proceedings down to eye roll territory, but when they’re out of the way, we really do get a charming, funny, and imaginative coming-of-age story. There are plot devices and other aspects that are derivative as all hell, occasionally making this feel like an animated, kid-friendly version of The Joy Luck Club, but there are far worse inspirations to crib from.
Set in 2002 for the purpose of 90s references that were already dated at the time (Tamagotchis, The Simpsons, etc.), the story revolves around Meilin Lee (newcomer Rosalie Chiang), called “Mei” or “Mei Mei” by her friends and family. She’s just turned 13, is starting eighth grade, and helps run a small Chinese temple in her hometown of Toronto with her parents, Ming (Sandra Oh) and Jin (Orion Lee from First Cow, the last film I got to see in a theatre before the world shut down two years ago). The temple is a shrine to one of their ancestors, who according to legend was given the ability to turn into a giant red panda to defend her village while all the men were off to war.
Mei is, let’s just say it, obnoxious. She narrates the entire opening bragging about how awesome and perfect she is (but she says, “Not to brag,” which makes it… charming, I guess?). She has perfect grades, is a virtuoso flautist, and is apparently a superstar athlete because she can steal a basketball pass one time. This very montage, to its credit, also explains why she can be insufferable, because when she steals the pass, she misses the shot, tossing the ball into the streets, where it’s immediately flattened by a passing truck. But it’s okay, because the guy she stole the ball from, Tyler (Tristan Allerick Chen), is an insecure bully, so any horrible thing that happens to him is justified. Also, just guess how his story arc will play out in relation to Mei’s. Just, try to divine this mystery with only three possible outcomes.
Suffice to say, Mei is undoubtedly a girl boss, even though by the film’s timeline, that’s not a term yet. She spends most of her free time with her three best friends: the tomboyish Miriam (Ava Morse from Ron’s Gone Wrong), who looks like a mixture of Luca‘s Alberto and Shaggy from Scooby-Doo; Abby (Hyein Park), a childish ball of pink overalls who is little more than ADHD made flesh; and Priya (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan from Never Have I Ever), an excitable yet monotone voice of reason. All of them are obsessed with the boy band, 4Town, which is as dumb as it sounds, especially because there are five members. Are we going to have any legitimate commentary on how boy bands are empty, meaningless, thinly-veiled marketing campaigns meant to bleed teenage girls and their parents dry? Of course not. We’re just going to bask in the vapidity of generic, sophomoric lyrics and computerized beats, so naturally all of their songs are written by Billie Eilish and her brother Finneas, the latter performing one fifth of the vocals. The closest we get to any self-awareness with such tripe is Ming asking why they have their name despite their numbers, but it’s met with a shrug and never addressed again. At least Ben Folds named his three-man band as “Ben Folds Five” as a deliberate joke that we were all in on from the start.
The only insecurity in Mei’s life is Ming, as Mei feels the pressure to live up to her mother’s exacting standards. This is the first of many stereotypical jokes and references to strict Asian mothers, but it’s allowed because an Asian woman is the one making the jokes. I think that’s the rule, right? It’s only racist if someone else makes the joke or laughs at it, right? JUST TELL ME I’M A GOOD PERSON, PLEASE!
Anyway, after a particularly embarrassing night where Ming sees sketches Mei has drawn of her squad’s collective real-world crush, Devon (Addie Chandler, never heard from again once his plot utility has passed), flies off the handle, and humiliatingly confronts the boy without considering for a second that it’s just a harmless bit of teenage hormones setting in, Mei wakes up in the morning having transformed into the very red panda her family reveres. Naturally, she freaks the fuck out. Initially, Ming thinks Mei’s had her first cycle, because nothing makes a metaphor work better than just shoving it down our throats in painfully obvious fashion, but after seeing the metamorphosis, she and Jin decide it’s finally time to let their daughter in on the truth, that the legends about their ancestor are real, and that every woman in the family eventually is “inhabited” by the red panda spirit, activated whenever she experiences strong emotions. Why they waited until it happened to tell Mei rather than, I don’t know, giving her years to adjust to the idea, is waved off with a throwaway line like, “I thought I had more time.” The only way to stop it is through a mystical ceremony — performed by a local shaman named Mr. Gao (James Hong, looking only slightly less like a goose than the one he voiced in the Kung Fu Panda films) — to seal the spirit inside a charm of some kind, and it can only be performed during a “Red Moon” (menstrual code for lunar eclipse), which just so happens to be coming around again in one month. OKAY, WE GET IT! MOVE ON!
Now, this is a lot of frustrating setup, to the point where I sincerely started to worry that this movie would indeed turn out to be crap. Thankfully, the second act goes a long way to redeeming the fuckery by focusing on two key elements. The first is the unflinching support of Mei’s friends. It’s sweet, endearing, and thematically resonant because, as Mei herself realizes (and later lies about), she can control the panda through reaching a zen-like state of imagining her friends comforting her rather than her family, particularly her mother. That is a devastating yet absolutely perfect distillation of teen angst. It’s not that Mei hates or resents her mother, but that she’s beginning to understand her path in life is starting to diverge from whatever plans Ming might have had, and the associated stress is palpable, even when all sides not only mean well but actively still love one another. It’s about figuring stuff out rather than just going to the tired beat of “parents suck.”
The second is that, for the most part, the panda antics are really well executed. It’s a bit inconsistent sometimes as to what extent Mei can control her powers, but it’s forgivable because the visual of her just growing a tail or ears is distinctive and memorable. And while the chief motivating factor for the shenanigans is shallow and stupid (the girls are trying to raise money for a 4Town concert that’s supposed to take place a week before Mei’s ritual, and then for third act drama purposes it’s cheaply moved to the night of), I buy every second of their bonding, their giddy joy at thinking their scheme will work, and the idea of selling photo ops to students for money is the exact level of nonsense kids that age get up to, regardless of the timeframe.
Matters become complicated with the arrival of Ming’s mother/Mei’s grandmother, Wu (Wai Ching Ho), and a quartet of aunts, all of whom embody some form of Asian stereotype. Between all six adult women there are least a couple dozen jokes that would get me cancelled if I told them, like Ming checking under Mei’s bed and seeing the proof of her abusing her powers for profit but being most shocked by the B+ on one of her homework assignments. I SWEAR I’M NOT A BIGOT FOR SIMPLY RECOGNIZING CULTURAL QUIRKS!
They’ve come to help with Mei’s ritual, but mostly to set up a generational conflict, as Mei gets to observe the same nervousness in her own mother that she herself feels. It’s enough to make you forget the lesser attempts at humor and provides some much-needed depth to Ming as an antagonist. Most of her objections and restrictions on Mei are surface level parental annoyances meant to be dismissed as just not “getting” the youth. They’re also used to diffuse actual wisdom in the name of irrationality. For instance, to take it back to the boy band idiocy, there are legitimate critiques to be made about the silly name or the fact that what they perform doesn’t even fit the dictionary definition of “music.” But all that gets lumped in with off-the-rails rambling about them being “delinquents” and Ming being nauseatingly uncomfortable with the concept of twerking. There are a lot of heartfelt moments about Mei and Ming coming to a deeper understanding with one another, but they’re occasionally marred by scenes like these, which seem designed to absolve Mei of any responsibility for her own actions.
I mean, I hate to keep harping on this aspect of the film, but it really is irritating. Boy bands are objectively stupid and creatively bankrupt. And you know what? That’s okay. I get it. People like what they like, including stuff that is completely asinine. I’m no different. When I was a kid, I was super into Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Power Rangers, and Thundercats (I even got flashbacks to the latter when Mr. Gao performs the ritual, as it involves holding aloft a sword with a red gem on the hilt to focus power), which were literally created just to sell toys and tons of other merchandise. As high-minded as we like to think we are, we all have guilty pleasures that are just downright bullshit.
But here’s the difference. I never staked my life on Donatello. I never went behind my family’s back and risked my wellbeing or my schooling just to get an action figure or eat a Hostess cream pie covered in green icing. I never defined my emotional development through that lens, because I had people willing to be honest with me and tell me that it’s fun to like dumb things, but I should recognize that they are in fact dumb. And it’s okay to be nostalgic for them, because that nostalgia is about reliving fond memories, not obsessing.
Boy bands (and really all of pop music since at least the mid-90s) are designed to block out that crucial aspect of critical thought. They need that obsession to thrive and have capitalized on it for decades. And sadly, that’s what the girls — particularly Mei — do here. The idea that Mei would ever leave her ritual just to see this fucking “concert” (after the requisite third act conflict cliché where she betrays her friends) is not the least bit believable. The idea that she’d ignore generations of warnings about permanently turning into a feral beast so she could gawk at a model with a headset microphone is completely insipid. And the idea that the entire third act of this film (along with the background of the first two acts) is predicated on nostalgia for this most craven of corporate cultural manipulations as a POSITIVE aspect of Mei’s character is insulting to our collective intelligence. Ming is right to try to kibosh this shit, or at the very minimum she should have contextualized it for Mei so she doesn’t go insane and do something incredibly stupid for no reason. But because something so essential was tossed aside in favor of Mei’s annoyingly compulsive character, by the time we have our climactic monster fight at the concert, I was actively rooting for the venue to be destroyed and for all of 4Town to be killed as collateral damage.
Because there is validity in Ming’s parenting style, even if it’s played for laughs at times. There’s genuine pathos in trying to figure out how to forge your own path and balance your passions and responsibilities. It’s okay to admit you’re not perfect (something Disney has a HUGE problem with right now with regards to their female protagonists), but that you’re always trying to do better and get it right. That’s growth, that’s maturity, that’s, dare I say, nuance. When the movie focuses on those moments with some lighthearted humor, you really do feel that magic that Pixar can sometimes pull off so effortlessly. When Mei’s defining her entire existence through the ability to touch the fingers of a boy engineered to steal her money, it kind of undermines any feminist angle the film’s reaching for.
But really, these are small concerns. I’m not lying, they truly are. I know I’ve devoted way more time to them than to the good bits, but that’s mostly because if these areas weren’t there, this would approach Pixar’s pantheon. We know how great Pixar can be and often is, so I don’t feel the need to rattle off the stuff we already know should be there (and it is, though only a very narrow audience will likely get a pure Pixar tearjerker moment). As it is, the shit bits drag the film down by a couple of points because they’re just not effective outside of a comparison to Eighth Grade, in that at least Mei and her friends’ shallow goals are in the real world rather than Elsie Fisher’s baffling need to be YouTube/Instagram famous to give her life any meaning.
Because at its heart, this is a simple story of parents and children coming to needed understandings, no matter how long it takes. And in Pixar’s grand tradition, Turning Red tells that story through fantastical elements and visual marvel, at least outside of the eyesore rubber/clay designs of the kids (it’s so bad that for Abby, her lip sync is completely off in some scenes). I’m glad Domee Shi got to make the movie she always wanted to, and by all appearances, largely on her terms. And thankfully, no children are eaten by their parents (I loved Bao, but that was kind of fucked up). It doesn’t quite resonate as much as I’d like, but just like with Eighth Grade, I’m clearly not the target audience, so I should probably just be grateful that I could connect with it at all, much less that I wholeheartedly enjoyed its finer moments.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? Where does this fall on the Pixar pecking order for you? Seriously, what is the appeal of boy bands? Let me know!
Originally published at http://actuallypaid.com on March 14, 2022.