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'Turning Red' confronts the messiness of adolescence with refreshing honesty

In <em>Turning Red</em>, 13-year-old Mei Lee (voiced by Rosalie Chiang) "poofs" into a giant red panda whenever she gets too excited.
In Turning Red, 13-year-old Mei Lee (voiced by Rosalie Chiang) "poofs" into a giant red panda whenever she gets too excited.

Three years ago, the writer-director Domee Shi won an Oscar for her delightful Pixar animated short, Bao. In telling the sweet and surreal story of a Chinese Canadian mother and a steamed dumpling that comes to life, it captured something funny and poignant about the cultural and generational differences that can divide Asian immigrant families.

With her first feature, Turning Red, Shi leans further into the complexities of Asian parent-child relationships — and this time, she's come up with an even wilder conceit. If you were to mash together Carrieand The Joy Luck Club, and somehow still get away with a PG rating, it might look a bit like this movie.

The story is set in the early 2000s, and it follows a 13-year-old girl named Meilin Lee, voiced by Rosalie Chiang, who lives in Toronto's Chinatown. Mei is an obedient overachiever, a straight-A student who spends her free time helping her parents run a temple built to honor their Chinese ancestors.

While Mei's father is shy and mostly stays out of the way, her mother, Ming — a terrificSandra Oh — is attentive to the point of overbearing. In addition to being super-involved with Mei's studies, Ming rigorously polices her daughter's social life, in hopes that she won't be too influenced by Western ways.

But while Mei may look like the perfect daughter, she has interests of her own, like any teenager. She's starting to notice boys, and she and her friends are particularly obsessed with an 'N Sync-style boy band. And then one morning, in a twist that riffs on Kafka's The Metamorphosis and countless werewolf movies, she discovers that she's turned into an enormous red panda, with bright red-orange fur and a long, bushy tail. She promptly flips out.

Director Shi, who wrote the script with Julia Cho, confronts the messiness of adolescence with an honesty that's refreshing in the world of studio animation. Mei's transformation is clearly a metaphor for the onset of puberty, when your body betrays you and becomes unrecognizable overnight. But it's a metaphor for something else, too. As it turns out, the red-panda effect is the result of some very ancient Chinese magic that's been passed down to Mei through the women in her family.

It may be a ridiculous setup, but as in most Pixar movies, even the most outlandish plot devices have their own narrative logic. Mei soon figures out that her panda persona is triggered by intense emotions; whenever she calms down, she turns back into her human self.

Her mom instructs her to suppress her feelings and the panda along with it. But then something funny happens: Her friends find out about the panda, and rather than being weirded out by it, they think it's the cutest, coolest thing ever. Soon, Mei is newly popular and having the time of her life, and she starts to wonder: What if the panda, far from being some shameful aberration, is actually the truest expression of her happy, goofy, emotional self?

And so Turning Red tells a story about shame, repression and social anxiety — areas that I, like more than a few Asian Americans, know a thing or two about. During the movie, I found myself sometimes wincing in recognition at Mei's tension and embarrassment as she's torn between her family and friends. I also balked at moments that seemed to exaggerate for comic effect, especially when it came to Mei's mother, who's clearly been conceived along the lines of the controversial "tiger mom" stereotype.

All of which is to say that Turning Red gives you a lot of ideas to grapple with. It also gives you a lot to look at. Director Shi and her collaborators have a lot of fun incorporating East Asian influences into the story and animation. You can see touches of Japanese anime in the character design; Mei's panda has the fluffy, oversized proportions of Hayao Miyazaki's Totoro. The action-heavy climax manages to salute kaiju movies like Godzilla and martial-arts epics like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

Turning Red knows that teenage life can sometimes feel like a monster movie and sometimes it's an action movie — and now, happily, it's a Pixar movie, and one of the bolder ones to come along in a while.

Copyright 2022 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Justin Chang is a film critic for the Los Angeles Times and NPR's Fresh Air, and a regular contributor to KPCC's FilmWeek. He previously served as chief film critic and editor of film reviews for Variety.