I’m finding it increasingly difficult to come up with an answer as to why Disney, more so the heads of the company, decided to move its newest Pixar animated studio fare from a theatrical release to being dumped on the constantly expanding streaming service Disney Plus. Is there some big cover-up that we shouldn’t know about or a conspiracy behind the decision? Who knows, that’s a topic for another time and minds way more intelligent than mine, however, given all the negative press the house of Mouse has received over the last couple weeks, the choice just digs the graves that much deeper. Turning Red and by extension co-writer director Domee Shi as well as the countless artists who worked on the film deserved so much better from the studio and so do the fans.
Understandably since the COVID-19 pandemic shifted how the entire globe lives and functions on a daily basis, some films had to take the bullet and be shifted to the streaming service in an attempt to make some profit back. Soul was the first to be affected and moved its date a handful of times to adjust for the unpredictable climate, Lucasuffered the same fate as Turning Red – having an original release structure in theaters while cases cool down, but the decision was made to put them to Disney Plus. Executives believed in Encanto enough to give that a theatrical release. While on the other hand, Raya and the Last Dragon & Mulan get put behind a paywall. Luca and Turning Red never stood a chance. Let’s cross our fingers for the upcoming Lightyear.
People might riot if that happens.
In 2018, preceding the release of Incredibles 2 was the short film simply titled Bao. The director of said 8-minute short, Domee Shi ended up winning the Academy Award for Best Animated Short while simultaneously becoming the first woman to direct a short film for Pixar. It’s easily the best and most memorable short Pixar has done.
Fast forward a couple years and Shi would get her shot at a feature for the studio. The result of Shi’s effort is a wholesome story of growing up in the mid 2000’s. I was about the same age that Turning Red takes place, so Shi nails the atmosphere of a budding teenager and all the messy chaos that goes on in their daily lives. Granted, I’m in a different country and a different gender than Shi’s main character Meilin “Mei” Lee (voiced by Rosalie Chiang) but I can understand where Mei is coming from. Mostly with the boy band craze that tore up the beginning of the decade.
At the center of Mei’s universe is the boy band named 4 Town who have 5 members according to Mei’s strict and misunderstood mother Ming Lee (voiced by Sandra Oh) “It’s the devil’s music and should be ignored” (paraphrasing). Along with her besties Miriam (voiced by Ava Morse), Priya (voiced by Maitreyi Ramakrishnan) and Abby (voiced by Hyein Park) and secretly Tyler (voiced by Tristan Allerick Chen) the goal is to raise enough money (or exploit it out of fellow classmates) to see the concert in their hometown of Toronto.
The obstacle in the way that serves as the films driving force is Mei’s giant red panda that she blossoms into overnight after being embarrassed by her mother. Used intelligently as a metaphor for a growing up, transforming from a girl into a woman, Mei’s transformation is adorable. I can only imagine Agnes from Despicable Me dying from the fluffy overload. Shi along with co-writer Julia Cho attack growing up in a way we all can relate to. The rebellion of going against your parents, giving into peer pressure but also coming into your own skin, accepting who you are as a person with all the quirks that come with it.
Featuring music from the rising talents of Finneas O’Connell, writing the lyrics for the 4 Town songs and Ludwig Goransson composing the score, Turning Red is full of talent from top to bottom. Let alone the beautiful animation that looks life like with a double take. I could have sworn when Mei’s father Jin Lee (voiced by Orion Lee) was cooking, Domee Shi switched to live action. That’s how delicious those dumplings looked.
What Disney and Pixar has done well over the last couple years has been focused on the inclusivity of other cultures, ethnicities, and backgrounds. Within this exploration comes a world of possibilities of stories to be told. Turning Red is full of generational culture handed down from Wu (voiced by Wai Ching Ho) Mei’s grandmother to Ming to Mei. To an outsider, it may appear to be controlling and forced learned behavior but in reality, the culture is misunderstood. We as the audience get a peek behind closed doors ad get to witness a loving family – they just need the right push. Filling the animated frames in Shi’s story is rich with history that only scratches the surface – the Chinese culture is truly fascinating especially the heritage passed down from generation to generation.
Turning Red’s themes of friendship and family truly standout. At the end of the day, Domee Shi’s story is about a mother and her aging daughter. What Ming endured growing up shouldn’t be what Mei must endure. Mei is her own person who breaks a cycle to make decisions for herself and her mother’s acceptance means everything to Mei. But because there is a heritage, the acceptance must come from Mei’s elders as well. As much as Rosalie knocks her performance out of the SkyDome, Sandra Oh is the heart and soul of Turning Red.
What starts as a wholesome story about growing up and learning self-acceptance full of cultural influence and turn of the century style turns into a giant red panda kaiju battle with the assistance of a boy band. What more do we need?
Written By: Domee Shi & Julia Cho
Directed By: Domee Shi
Music By: Ludwig Goransson
Cinematography: Mahyar Abousaeedi & Jonathan Pytko
Starring: Rosalie Chiang, Sandra Oh, Ava Morse, Hyein Park, Maitreyi Ramakrishnan, Orion Lee, Wai Ching Ho, Tristan Allerick Chen, James Hong
Where to Watch: Disney Plus
Release Date: March 11, 2022
Running Time: 1 Hour 40 Minutes
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 95%
My Score: 4 out of 5