Building Entertainment: The films of the Walt Disney Studio. Pixar Edition. Turning Red

Welcome to my weekly discussion of the films of the Walt Disney Studio. I’m proceeding mostly chronologically. The title comes from a quote from Walt, “I never called my work an ‘art’ It’s part of show business, the business of building entertainment.”

Title: Turning Red

Year: 2022

Budget:  $175 million

Box office: $4 million 1

Plot: Meilin “Mei” Lee is a 13-year-old Chinese-Canadian student prodigy who lives in Toronto. Miriam, Priya and Abby are her best friends and they are all fans of the boy band 4* Town. Ming, Mei’s mother, constantly expects perfection from her daughter and disapproves of her personal interests. The Lee family spend their days taking care of their Chinese temple.

One night after having a nightmare, Mei suddenly wakes up to discover that she has turned into a large red panda. After hiding from her parents, Mei discovers that she only transforms when she is in a state of high emotion. Later, Ming finds out when she inadvertently embarrasses her by getting into a fight with a security guard in front of her class, making Mei leave school and run to her house.

Ming and Mei’s father, Jin, explain that every female member of their family has been granted with the transformation on account of an ancestor, and the red panda spirit can only be sealed in a talisman by a ritual on the night of the Red Moon. With the next Red Moon arriving in a month, Ming intends to keep Mei locked in her room until that night. Mei’s friends inadvertently discover Mei’s transformation but take a liking to it, and Mei finds that concentrating on them prevents her from changing into a red panda. She convinces her parents to let her continue her normal life, though Ming continues to keep a close eye on Mei.

4*Town announce that they will be coming to Toronto as part of their concert tour, but Ming refuses to let Mei attend it. Using Mei’s powers, she and her friends begin to raise money needed for the tickets out of Ming’s sight. Tyler, a former bully, asks Mei to entertain at his birthday. At the party, Mei discovers that the concert will be happening on the night of the ritual. She gets angry and attacks Tyler when he insults her, leaving the kids in a panic. Ming discovers Mei’s recent activities and chastises her friends for seemingly corrupting her behavior and taking advantage of her. Mei fails to come to her friend’s defense because she is afraid to stand up to Ming.

Mei’s grandmother and aunts come to assist in her ritual, but just as the red panda form is about to be sealed, Mei decides to keep her powers and abandons the ritual to attend the concert at the SkyDome with her friends, who forgive Mei for her actions at the party. Unfortunately, during her escape from the temple, Mei inadvertently shattered her mother’s talisman; an extremely angry Ming transforms into a gigantic red panda and disrupts the concert, intending to punish Mei. While the audience disperses, Mei and her mother argue about Mei abandoning the ritual, and Mei accidentally knocks her mother out.

The rest of the Lee family arrive to complete a new ritual, with the women using their red panda form to help Mei bring the unconscious Ming into the ritual circle. With the singing of Mei’s friends and 4*Town, the new ritual sends Mei, Ming, and the other women to the astral plane. Mei manages to reconcile with her mother, and while the other Lee women conceal their red pandas, Mei decides to keep hers. Some time later, Mei and Ming’s relationship has improved and Mei balances her temple duties with spending time with friends, now including Tyler, though Ming is forced to raise money to pay the city back for the damage she caused to the SkyDome.

In a post-credits scene, Jin is in his basement, listening to Mei’s 4*Town CD.

Animation:Pixar animators visited various locations around Northern California for inspiration and visual references. They studied red pandas at the San Francisco Zoo, and looked at architecture in Chinatown in San Francisco and the Bok Kai Temple in Marysville.

Domee Shi described the film’s overall look as an “Asian tween fever dream”. Several anime influenced the looks of the film, including Sailor Moon, Ranma ½, Fruits Basket, and Inuyasha. To capture these anime influences, hand-drawn 2D animated effects were added atop Pixar’s 3D animation.

Background: Domee Shi had completed the Pixar short Bao in 2017 when Pixar invited her to pitch three ideas for a full-length film. Her concepts were all based on coming-of-age centered on teenage girls, with the one that became Turning Red based around a girl going through a “magical puberty,” which Shi has written based on her own personal experiences. Shi said “Everyone has been there. Everyone has been 13 and feeling like they’re turning into some wild, hairy, hormonal beast, and I think that’s why Pixar was drawn to it.” According to Pixar producer Lindsey Collins who sat in on Shi’s pitch meeting, the Pixar staff were drawn to the Turning Red idea as “it was so clear that Domee had such a sense of who these two main characters were, that Mei and Ming were really clear and special and unique, more than any of the other ideas” and that “she had this really personal experience with these two characters that were kind of versions of her own life. That’s like the magic equation, right there.”

Shi was also inspired by My Neighbor Totoro, in creating an “iconic grabbable giant animal that you just want to rub your face in”. Shi also compared the plot of the film to Disney’s A Goofy Movie, a similar coming-of-age movie involving a parent and child trying to mend their relationship, with a pop band as part of the film’s climax. The film also deals with aspects of puberty, though the film does not directly talk of biological changes. For example, Mei’s mother first mistakes Mei’s reaction to her transformation as if she was having her first menstruation. Shi said they were “unapologetic” about the discussion of these topics in the film; the title Turning Red itself an allegory for this time in a young woman’s life. Red itself also reflected other feelings often experienced by a teenager, according to Shi, such as embarassment or lustful feelings, and furthered this analogy. Shi and her staff had feared that studio executives would want these scenes referencing puberty removed, but the scenes were accepted into the film. Rona Liu served as production designer in the film, after previously doing so for Bao. Liu said that working on a feature film was “a dream come true” for her.

Cast: Sandra Oh returns as Ming Lee and James Hong returns as Mr. Gao.

Rosalie Chiang as Meilin “Mei” Lee. In 2017, Pixar hired Chiang to provide scratch vocals to support the development of the film. Chiang, then only 12 years old, was selected in part because she was a local child actor conveniently based in nearby Fremont, which is only about 35 miles (56 km) from Pixar’s Emeryville headquarters. Despite listening to various auditions, the two realized they had already fallen in love with Chiang’s scratch vocals and could not envision anyone else playing Mei. 2 Ava Morse as Miriam Mendelsohn. Her credits include Surpise Me! and Ron’s Gone Wrong.

Maitreyi Ramakrishnan as Priya Mangal. She is best known for her leading role as Devi Vishwakumar in Never Have I Ever. She will star in The Netherfield Girls, a contemporary adaptation of Jane Austen’s novel Pride and Prejudice. She will voice Zipp Storm in My Little Pony: Make Your Mark. Hyein Park as Abby Park. This her first acting credit, but she was a storyboard artist for The Peanuts Movie, Toy Story 4, and Soul.

Orion Lee as Jin Lee. He has appeared in Skyfall, Justice League, and Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Wai Ching Ho as Wu. She is known for her role as Madame Gao in the Marvel Cinematic Universe onscreen, in Daredevil, Iron Fist and The Defenders. She has also appeared on Law & Order, Flight of the Conchords, Orange Is the New Black, and Fresh Off the Boat.

The members of the 4*Town boy band:  Jordan Fisher as Robaire. His roles include The Secret Life of the American Teenager, Liv and Maddie, Teen Beach Movie, Teen Beach 2, Grease Live, Rent: Live and She-Ra and the Princesses of Power. On Broadway he appeared in Hamilton and Dear Evan Hansen. Finneas O’Connell as Jessie. He has won eight Grammy Awards  for his work on his sister’s Billie Eilish’s debut album When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? Acting credits include Bad Teacher, Glee, and Modern Family Josh Levi as Aaron Z. Levi had a recurring role on television series Friday Night Lights, and was also a finalist on season 3 of The X Factor. Topher Ngo as Aaron T. This is so far his only acting credit. Grayson Villanueva as Tae Young. His credits include Modern Family and Call Me Kat.

Songs: Billie Eilish and Finneas O’Connell wrote three original songs performed in the film by the fictional boy band 4*Town.  Collins said had decided to approach Eilish and O’Connell at the start of the production, near the same time that Eilish was coming to fame herself.

  • “Nobody Like U”
  • “1 True Love”
  • “U Know What’s Up”

Critical Reception:

  • The Washington Post’s Michael O’Sullivan gave 4 stars out of 4 and concludes: “[The film] delivers a bigger, and in some ways more universal message: It’s okay to not always be in control, to let your freak flag fly. To paraphrase Sigmund Freud, sometimes a red panda is just a red panda. And sometimes it’s a metaphor for that inner spark of creativity, the flame of originality that is to be cherished, not extinguished. With “Turning Red,” Shi demonstrates that she’s got it, in spades.”
  • The Guardian’s Benjamin Lee gave 3 stars out of 5 and concludes: “The journey is slick and diverting, and at times incisive, but Turning Red is yet another Pixar film that coasts rather than glides. Hopefully its next offering can turn into something more.”
  • IGN’s Siddhant Adlakha gave a rating of 9 out of 10 and concludes: “A story of magical transformation as a metaphor for personal and cultural change, Turning Red (from Bao director Domee Shi) is Pixar’s funniest and most imaginative film in years. It captures the wild energy of adolescence, uses pop stars as a timeless window into puberty, and tells a tale of friendship and family in the most delightfully kid-friendly way.”
  • There was some criticism of the film that initially arose from a review from CinemaBlend’s Sean O’Connell, in which he called the focus on a Chinese Canadian girl as “limiting” to a broad audience, and that “By rooting Turning Red very specifically in the Asian community of Toronto, the film legitimately feels like it was made for Domee Shi’s friends and immediate family members. Which is fine — but also, a tad limiting in its scope”. The review received backlash by members of the press on social media, calling it “sexist” and “racist.” Crew and cast members of the movie eventually spoke up on the case. Lead voice actor Rosalie Chiang said the film was meant to appeal to all: “This is a coming of age film, everyone goes through this change … I think different people of different cultures are going to go through it differently, but at the end of the day, the core messiness and change is something everyone can relate to.” As a result of the pushback, CinemaBlend’s editor-in-chief Mack Rawden pulled O’Connell’s review and apologized publicly for it and that the site had “failed to properly edit” the review before posting; O’Connell also posted his own apology for the review.However, the attention drawn by O’Connell’s review led to parents and other audience critics to raise further issues with the film due to the character specificity, bringing up concerns that film, aimed at a family audience, brings up the issues of menstruation, teenage crushes and sexuality, and disobedience towards one’s parents, which these people felt were topics best left for parents to discuss with their children on their own. 
  • Movie critics for The New York Times, The Daily Beast, and Vox, however, responded that such criticisms are misplaced, since these are natural topics that reflect the realities of 13-year-old girls, should not be considered taboo, and praised the movie for its honest portrayal of these behaviors.

Legacy: Disney licensed several books based on the film, which were released both before and after the US premiere. This includes: novelizations, short stories, sticker album, behind the scenes, coloring books and more.

My take: Mei is a great character right off the bat, and I was pleased at how funny the movie was. What I loved about the film was both specific and universal in scope. Growing into adulthood but seen through a specific cultural lens. Not ever being a teenage girl myself, I asked Belle her opinion and she felt they got the teenage girl aspect spot on. We both thought it was impressive that the film brought up the subject of menstruation.

Available on Disney +?: Yes. The film was released on March 11 on Disney+ along with a simultaneous limited run at the El Capitan Theatre. It was released theatrically in countries without the streaming service. Originally intended to be released in theaters worldwide, further disruption from the COVID-19 pandemic and the rapid spread of the Omicron variant resulted in the change being made.