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Turning Red Review

7 min read

A sweet, adorable ball of red fur.

What They Say:
A 13-year-old girl named Meilin turns into a giant red panda whenever she gets too excited.

Content: (please note that content portions of a review may contain spoilers):
If you know me, you know I love red pandas. My love is so well known that my friends will send me pictures and videos, and even stuffed red pandas, so believe me when I say I was very well aware of this movie and was more than a little excited.

Did it live up to my love of the animal? Did they get the fur right? Read on and find out!

Meilin lives in Toronto in 2002. She’s the only daughter of Chinese immigrants, and the family business is tending to a temple devoted to red pandas and their ancestor Sun Yee. By all rights, Meilin is an average girl on the cusp of teenagerhood. She’s feeling the first real pangs of growing up and separating from her parents, forming an identity of her own. She talks a big game, but, at heart, she cares so much for her family and her friends that she overextends to please everyone. It’s an untenable situation that grows even worse when a family trait surfaces after a particularly embarrassing public moment with her mother. When she becomes upset, Meilin turns into an eight-foot-tall red panda. Or, as she puts it, “I’m a gross red monster!”

Her mother is on it, though (as she is on all things in Meilin’s life). It turns out that Sun Yee prayed to the Gods to turn her into a red panda to protect her village from bandits. The panda spirit (or spirits? It’s not quite clear) ended up passing from her to her daughters, down and down the family line, with Meilin the most recent recipient/afflicted. Not all is lost, though. There exists a ritual that can be performed on the first red moon that will seal the panda spirit away forever in a talisman. Unfortunately for Meilin, the next red moon is a month away, and the more she lets the panda out, the harder it will be to exorcise.

Keeping one’s emotions in check is difficult for anyone, but for a teenager? With an overbearing mother? With a boy band concert she desperately wants to attend? This seems like an impossible task. Of course, Meilin refuses to accept the impossible, and with the help of her friends, she manages to keep the panda under control. That is, until the panda turns out to be the only way the girls can earn enough money to buy tickets for the 4*Town concert.

The situation grows more complicated as Meilin learns to enjoy the panda, and the freedom and power it gives her. It becomes a way for her to quietly rebel against the stifling love of her mother and learn who she is as an individual.

The question becomes: will she go through with the ritual, or will she keep the panda?

Turning Red is a sweet, adorable movie that had me choking up a little at the end. It captures well the different forces that pull on a new teenager as they start to leave the nest and discover who they are as an individual. Meilin does her best to balance her obligation to her family with her desire to be with and be a good friend to her pals. It’s a balancing act that is doomed to fail, but, love her heart, she tries to make it work.

The red panda serves as a metaphor for her desire for freedom, as well as her awakening as a sexual being. I won’t spoil the scene by describing it, but the moment when she realizes she has a crush on a boy is hilarious. As the movie makes clear, the panda is Meilin’s “bad” side, although it would be more accurate to say “wild” instead. What’s great about the movie (among many things) is that the story makes it clear—as voiced through Meilin’s father—that having a “bad” side isn’t, well, bad. It’s a part of who we are, and accepting that and being conscious of it allows for us to control it, and maybe even use it for positive ends. Like many works geared towards middle grade and young adults, Turning Red posits a clear message of self-acceptance, and it does very well.

This message of self-acceptance plays out through the tension between Melin’s mother Ming and her friends. Meilin shares a strong bond with her mother (so much so that I felt a little bad for her father until the end). The two clearly share many personality traits, and they make a good team. Meilin looks up to her mother and wants to make her proud, but her mother’s love and attention often stifle her. In her mother’s eyes, Meilin will always be a little girl, and that’s no longer the case.

Meilin finds more acceptance with her friend group. Her friends, Miriam, Abby, and Priya love Meilin to death, and are incredibly supportive of one another. They also share an obsessive love of the boy band 4*Town, and that plays a large role throughout the movie. Ming states more than once that her friends are bad influences, and a major source of conflict is when Ming confronts the friends after Meilin sneaks out and uses the panda to raise the last of the money for the concert. Without explicitly asking her to, Ming forces Meilin to choose between her and her friends, and the choice Meilin makes is heartbreaking.

That said, no one is a bad guy in this situation. Ming loves her daughter and wants her to be happy, healthy, and successful. She just goes overboard with it. The friends love Meilin as well, but they also encourage her to use the panda—a force that is barely under Meilin’s control, and whose continued use puts the ritual in danger at the end. They all want what’s best for Meilin, but they can’t come to an agreement on what that “best” is. At the end, rightly so, it falls on Meilin to choose for herself.

Like the end of childhood, the end of Turning Red is slightly bittersweet. The characters occupy different places in their lives, and their relationships have been redefined. While these changes are for the better, they’re still a bit sad, because change is sad, and endings are sad. Thankfully, beginnings always follow endings, and those are happy, or at least hopeful. One has to give up something to move forward, and hope that the rewards outweigh the cost. That’s one of the key lessons from Turning Red.

Of course, this is all beautifully animated. The timing on the animation is amazing, and the way the individual characters moved and expressed themselves was incredible. I think my favorite character was Abby, Meilin’s most vocal and angry friend. Abby doesn’t always have the best lines, but, for my money, Hyein Park delivers the most consistently funny line reads of the movie.

I can’t finish this without addressing the red panda in the room. I don’t know if this was intended, but there are shades of Totoro in the design of Meilin’s panda form. Like Totoro, Panda Meilin is absolutely adorable, but at the same time there exists a certain wildness to her, a certain danger that is abrogated by the reaction of her friends and her schoolmates. This serves an important function in the story, because if Panda Meilin were completely adorable, there wouldn’t be any sense of threat or danger to her deciding to keep the panda.

The animators also do a great job of making her move like a red panda. There’s one instance in particular that stands out, where Panda Meilin is startled by people on the street, and she rears up with her paws held high. This is a common reaction by a red panda when they feel threatened, and it looked just like the YouTube videos of red pandas that I’ve watched over and over again.

My only complaint about the movie is that her belly should be black.

In Summary:
Turning Red is adorable. As one would expect from a Pixar, there’s an incredible amount of attention to detail in the writing and animating, and I had a great time. As a 42-year-old man, I probably don’t resonate with it on the same level as its target audience, but I think it speaks to the universality of the themes and the overall craft with which they are presented that I was engaged and entertained as I was. I could see this being a very informative and empowering movie for kids, and I hope it will be, as the message is positive and important.

Just fix the fur for the sequel.

Dr. J gives this an…

Grade: A