A quirky Asian teenager transforms into a giant red panda whenever she gets excited … even the premise gives me pause. Which makes the task of reviewing the new Disney/Pixar film “Turning Red” (on Disney+ March 11) especially tricky.
Because that’s the idea behind this sometimes heartwarming but wayward coming-of-age movie, which toes the line between truthfully representing a Chinese family, flaws and all, and indulging stereotypes.
Meilin Lee (voiced by Rosalie Chiang) is a typical 13-year-old girl: she dances, has crushes on boys and has a cohort of weird but loyal besties who share her obsession with the glossy-lipped members of the boy band 4*Town.
She’s also Chinese Canadian, living in Toronto in 2002, where her family maintains a temple. There she helps her loving but overbearing mother, Ming (Sandra Oh), and tries to be the perfect daughter — even when that means burying her own thoughts and desires in the process. This becomes a lot more difficult when she goes through her changes — not of the period variety, but the panda kind.
The character writing and design are where “Turning Red,” directed by Domee Shi, most succeeds. Mei has the relatable swagger of the middle school cool nerd — she’s creative and confident, and also has a perfect report card. The tomboy skater girl Miriam, the deadpan Priya and the hilariously fiery Abby form a funky trifecta of gal pals who are Mei’s emotional safety net. And Ming strikes an impressive balance between dictatorial and doting, dismissing Mei’s friends and interests but also stalking her at school to ply her with steamed buns.
Shi finds subtle yet effective ways to illustrate the personalities of even the ancillary characters, from the stiffly applied makeup of Mei’s grandmother (Ho-Wai Ching) to the flamboyant open-toed footwear of the gang of aunties who follow Grandma Lee around.
And the animation of Mei’s hair in her panda form — how it lays flat when she’s calm or spikes upward when she’s mad — reinforces her emotional shifts.
It’s no surprise that these kinds of expressions are where Shi’s direction most shines; as in her 2018 Oscar-winning Pixar short “Bao,” “Turning Red” lives and breathes on the complex emotional relationship between a mother and a child preparing to leave the nest.
And also as in “Bao,” in which a mother raises a steamed bun child from birth to adulthood, here again Shi uses a culturally specific metaphor to convey her characters’ emotions.
This is where “Turning Red” gets sticky: though the plot’s red panda magic is rooted in its characters’ cultural traditions (the Lees honor an ancestor who defended her family with the power of a red panda), these details aren’t enough to absolve the film of its kid-friendly version of exoticism. After all, its characters profit off Mei’s cute and foreign transformation.
And when it comes down to the movie’s conflict, the antagonists are the women in Mei’s family. Or, more accurately, the suffocating cultural traditions and familial expectations that are embodied by the women. The fact that Mei’s grandmother gets the kind of shady introductory scene that you’d expect of the head honcho in a mobster flick, and that these women share the red panda affliction, means they fall into a formula of cold, emotionless Asian women. Is the film tackling the stereotype or fulfilling it? The line is too blurry to tell. By the end, a bit of understanding, empathy and a pandapocalypse reassures us that the stoic Asian dames aren’t the source of the problem but also victims, like Mei. Though I wonder what the movie would look like if the conflict wasn’t enacted solely in the form of these women.
“Turning Red” offers satisfying morsels despite its messiness, like the few throwbacks to the early aughts, including Tamagotchis and pre-BTS boy band mania. (4*Town’s criminally catchy songs, written by Billie Eilish and her brother, Finneas O’Connell, are perfect reproductions of 2000s pop hits.)
It’s too bad that “Turning Red” fumbles its storytelling, because at the very least it has fun when it lets its fur fly.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.