Fairy tales and fables have been employing physical transformation for presumably as long as there have been fairy tales and fables. And not just fairy tales and fables. Franz Kafka had Gregor Samsa give it a try, in ”The Metamorphosis.” So did those latter-day Kafkas Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, with Bruce Banner getting all green around the gills as the Hulk.
Now Pixar director Domee Shi has gone that route, too, in “Turning Red.” Her 13-year-old heroine, Meilin Lee — “Mei” to family and friends (looks a lot like “Me,” doesn’t it?) — is that rare eighth-grader who finds herself turning into a red panda.
Shi, who won an Oscar for her 2018 animated short, “Bao,” makes her debut here as a feature filmmaker. That debut occasions a further first. “Turning Red” is the first Pixar feature directed solely by a woman. Brenda Chapman shared the directing credit on “Brave”(2012).
“Turning Red” starts streaming on Disney+ March 11.
So much of the storytelling appeal of transformation has to do with its universality. There’s something archetypal about a human changing into a something else. Part of what makes extreme transformation archetypal is that it speeds up and exaggerates actual human experience: infants change into children, children change into adolescents — recall Mei’s age — and, well, you know.
Mei has this much in common with the Hulk: The transformation takes place when she gets upset. So long as she can stay calm, she stays herself. That said, try staying calm when you’re 13. Or an animated character.
Any resemblance to the Hulk ends there. Mei (voiced by Rosalie Chiang) is your basic wildly overachieving middle-schooler: “very enterprising, mildly annoying,” one of her teachers calls her. Much of that overachieving has to do with her mother, Ming (voiced by Sandra Oh). Ming’s the overprotective parent to end all overprotective parents. Some of this can get very funny. But some of it can also get a bit uncomfortable. The Lees are Chinese Canadian (”Turning Red” is set in Toronto) as is Shi; and Mei’s “model-minority” behavior and Ming’s Tiger Mother antics can make the characters come across as stereotypes. The line between archetype and stereotype can be hard to pinpoint sometimes. Crossing it can get even more problematic.
Some of Ming’s overprotectiveness has to do with fretting over the imminent onset of Mei’s puberty. Yes, that “red” in the title refers not just to panda fur or blushing — truly, in the realm of early-adolescent nightmares, turning into a different species has to be high on the list of cringe-worthy events — but also menstruation, which is directly addressed in the script. But some of the overprotectiveness also has to do with Ming’s knowledge that red-panda transformation is a trait that’s passed down on the female side of their family.
Along with being poised between girlhood and womanhood, Mei’s on another cusp. She’s equally attached to the traditional Chinese culture of her parents and the you-go-girl lifestyle of her pals Priya, Abby, and Miriam. She adores boy bands and relies on her flip phone (the year is 2002) just as much as they do.
The two cultures come into serious collision, with Meilin in the middle, over an upcoming SkyDome concert by the mega-popular boy band 4*Town. (Three of the songs we hear them perform were written for the movie by Billie Eilish and Finneas.) 4*Town may be the girls’ favorite boy band, but to Ming they’re “those glittery delinquents with their gyrations.” You can imagine Oh’s pleasure in making that last word sound so venomous.
How you respond to the friends will likely determine how you ultimately feel about “Turning Red.” Are they fresh and funny, lively and true to life? Or self-involved and obnoxious, forced and cliched? In their own way, they feel as stereotyped as Ming does. Given Pixar’s technical wizardry, the movie’s visuals are great. From the texture of red panda fur to the detailing of a Toronto streetcar, “Turning Red” is a feast for the eyes. But the plotting, dialogue, and characters aren’t quite up to the studio’s standards. That’s more tribute to Pixar, and what we’ve come to expect from it, than criticism of “Turning Red.” But it’s true that some transformations are less transformative than others, and this is one of them.
Directed by Domee Shi. Written by Shi, Julie Cho, Sarah Streicher. Starring Rosalie Chiang, Sandra Oh. Streaming on Disney+. 99 minutes. PG (thematic material, suggestive content, language).
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.