Movie Review: Pixar takes on Puberty with the growing-up-Panda farce, “Turning Red”

Here’s your “buy in” moment for “Turning Red,” Pixar’s latest animated attempt to break the mold about what cartoons for kids can be about.

Thirteen year-old over-achiever Meilin has been acting weird. She seems distracted at school. She’s peer-pressured beyond her group boy-band worship and into noticing the cute older boy at the corner convenience store. And her mom, Ming, has noticed these changes in “my little scholar.” Mom has just one question.

“Did the red peony bloom?”

Yes, she’s speaking metaphorically. But a Chinese-Canadian mom has just asked her teen daughter if she’s started menstruating — in a Pixar animated film.

It’s not such a stretch, considering the heavy lifting that “Inside/Out” and “Soul” did or attempted. But those “At least it’s not another ‘Toy Story’ sequel or variation” films were more psychological and touchy-feely. “Turning Red” — and boy, that title could spin a lot of ways considering its subject and the Chinese milieu — is inherently more biological, if allegorical.

And if you’re thinking “He is wading into a MINEfield” here, think about what the movie is saying or trying to say. Mei Mei, voiced by Rosalie Chiang, suddenly wakes up one morning as a giant, clumsy red panda, given to throwing her weight around amidst the occasional “triggered” emotional rage.

Her mother (Sandra Oh) and a gathering of elders in her family not only want to perform a ceremony to remove this inherited quirk in her DNA and personality. The message is she’s got to learn to control her inner panda, her emotions, her “mood swings.”

Considering how the acronym “PMS” has been erased from North American culture, that’s a gutsy play. Pixar, pandering to the more traditional Chinese marketplace (with indifferent results), revives something treated as dated — tropes about “that time of the month” and PMS — in the West.

The movie’s a lighthearted and sometimes entertaining odd duck on several levels. It dips into Chinese expat culture and cuisine in Toronto, and is inexplicably set in 2002. I guess that was “Peak Boy Band,” and Mei and her eighth grade BFFs Miriam, Priya and Abby (Ava Morse, Maitreyi Ramakrishnan and Hyein Park) are DEEP into 4Town, a five member (?) pop group of the NSYNC/O-Town school.

Meilin is confused by this change in her life, upset and hiding from her friends. But they’re not judgemental. They think she’s cute and fluffy in her panda guise. And all she has to do to change back is calm her emotions.

Being just-out-of-their-tweens, the kids find a way to exploit Mei’s panda persona amongst their accepting or at least curious classmates.

Yes, there’s more than a hint of “Teen Wolf” in this script by Julia Cho and director Domee Shi, who directed the adorable and Oscar-winning Chinese mom and her baby dumpling short, “Bao” a few years back. And you have to applaud the studio for green-lighting a movie that at least attempts to start “that conversation” between parents and kids.

But ambitions aside, I found the movie’s mashup of messaging, cultural recycling (Mei’s family runs a temple/shrine) of themes about “ancestors” and the origins of the red panda in human form a bit of a muddle — never exactly incoherent, not exactly consequential.

Adult characters are thinly-developed, with more promise than payoff. Even the kids, animated in a sort of digital Aardman style (wide mouths, narrow teeth), are two dimensional, at best.

At least the slapstick — what little there is of it — plays.

“Turning Red” isn’t so much a bad movie as a tentative one. It came to life with grand intentions, some cute characters, a ready-made toy tie-in and a hint of controversy. It plays as focus-grouped and watered-down — not the daring, boundary-pushing children’s edutainment it might have been.

Rating: PG for thematic material, suggestive content and language

Cast: The voices of Rosalie Chiang, Sandra Oh, Ava Morse, Maitreyi Ramakrishnan, Orion Lee,
Hyein Park and James Wong.

Credits: Directed by Domee Shi, scripted by Julia Cho and Domee Shi. A Pixar release.

Running time: 1:39

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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