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‘Turning Red’ review: A touching story about your cringiest adolescent memories

Ryan Oquiza

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‘Turning Red’ review: A touching story about your cringiest adolescent memories

TURNING RED. The Pixar film will no longer have its theatrical premiere.

Pixar's YouTube

'Turning Red' finds ways to creatively illustrate the growing pains of adolescence and its root causes. It's a tear-inducing stroll down memory lane.

This is a spoiler-free review.

Who would’ve thought that a fluffy red panda would help me come to terms with the most embarrassing moments of my childhood?

It’s easy to relate with Turning Red, the latest animated offering from Pixar that gives comforting explanations for the silly actions that children, including myself, have exhibited in the past. The story revolves around Mei Lee (voiced by Rosalie Chiang), a 13-year-old Chinese-Canadian girl navigating adolescence while battling her overprotective mother Ming (voiced by the ever-marvelous Sandra Oh), and controlling her emotionally-driven panda transformations.

It’s the first family-oriented animated film released in Philippine cinemas since the lockdown. It comes at a time when restrictions have loosened, allowing children to return to the movies once again. Incidentally, in the US and other territories, Turning Red flew straight to Disney+, a move met with disappointment from Pixar employees since it was touted to be their return to the big screen. It’s why viewing this film with a raucous crowd filled with enthusiastic children is a unique privilege — and it pays off splendidly.

Set in 2002, Mei finds herself stuck in a seemingly life-altering conundrum: her parents won’t let her see a boy group concert with her friends. A childish problem in the grand scheme of things? Certainly. But a justified feeling to have given the context? Also, yes. Director Domee Shi claims that those naive impulses were valid and worthy of scrutiny, not for shameful reasons, but for compassionate ones.

Instead of mocking trivial family disagreements, it treats the irreconcilable differences between mother and daughter with utmost respect and sensitivity. Wanting to go to a concert rather than acing an exam can be a worthy feeling to have. Maybe even fantasizing about crushes with inventive imagery isn’t such a bad thing. Perhaps, loving friends more than family is meaningful at a specific moment in time. Turning Red honors long-held Asian traditions while simultaneously challenging them to meet the needs of a simple 13-year-old girl.

I’ve been in Mei’s place countless times. I was on the receiving end of befuddled faces from my parents after making a 5-minute long presentation on why they should let me attend a K-pop concert (it was for TWICE). I’ve had mortifying situations where my mother would confront a crush and do just about everything to humiliate me. And, of course, the pressure that comes with being the first-born Asian child, who has to bear their parents’ hopes and dreams, has always been there.

Pixar is adept at packaging complicated feelings into warm and fuzzy analogies. The panda, aside from being utterly adorable, serves dual purposes in Mei’s family: it is both savior and curse. “There’s something about the color, too,” Shi shared in an interview. “Red represents your period. It represents being angry, being embarrassed, or being very lustful for someone.”

Mei needs to suppress her emotions to keep her panda at bay, rendering her incapable of expressing genuine individuality. At the same time, almost contradictorily, her friends Abby, Miriam, and Priya make Mei realize that the panda gives her a renewed sense of freedom away from her mother’s shadow.

This whirlwind of back-and-forths between who Mei should and shouldn’t be is intriguing not just because it is a compelling interior conflict but also because growing up uncertain of which path to take is a universal challenge. It’s what children continue to struggle with and what even the strictest of parents try to hide with their tough veneers. 

Ming becomes one of the most layered mother figures in any Pixar film because the root cause of her overbearingness is explored. Her story comments on the unhealthy inclination to portray perfection even when the blemishes are already too much to conceal, a trait she inherited from her own mother, Wu (voiced by Wai Ching Ho). Even the way Ming defends Mei to other people speaks volumes of her interest to downplay perceived flaws no matter what. 

She convinces herself that her daughter has always been good, never made any conscious choices against her will, and is merely sullied by bad external forces when she messes up. Ming is so afraid of Mei choosing the wrong path that she forgets to let her daughter make that choice for herself. This mother-and-daughter clash makes up a huge chunk of the film’s emotional core, and it culminates in an intimate heart-to-heart between the two that deserves to be in the upper-echelons of Pixar storytelling.

Toronto in the early 2000s feels lived-in and teeming with a diverse set of cultures, both traditional and new. Pocket pets meet ancient Chinese amulets, flip phones and music CDs are still abound, and, lest we forget, late ’90s American boy bands colliding with family values. These impermanent memories, no matter how cringe or nauseating in retrospect, shape identities and provide fleeting moments of happiness that can rarely be replicated.

There will be plenty of comparisons with Inside Out, Encanto, and even Lady Bird, but what sets this film apart is its magical puberty journey grounded on distinctly female experiences. It uses the contemporary bond between a mother and daughter against the backdrop of Asian ancestral tradition to create an ode to youth and adulthood’s imperfections.

Turning Red cherishes the complexities of adolescence and surfaces wince-worthy moments buried deep inside the subconscious. I’ve just entered my 20s, so I didn’t grow up in the ’90s like Mei, but that didn’t stop me from uncontrollably sobbing while surrounded by children half my age. –

Turning Red is now showing in Philippines cinemas.

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Ryan Oquiza

Ryan Oquiza is a film critic for Rappler and has contributed articles to CNN Philippines Life, Washington City Paper, and PhilSTAR Life.