Turning Red

Title: Turning Red
Studio: Disney/Pixar
Director: Domee Shi
Writers: Domee Shi, Julia Cho, and Sarah Streicher
Voices: Rosalie Chiang, Sandra Oh, Ava Morse, Hyein Park, Maitreyi Ramakrishnan, Orion Lee, Wai Ching Ho, Mia Tagano, Sherry Cola, et al

At thirteen, Meilin thinks she has it all figured out. She’s an accomplished student, a devoted daughter and best friend, and an experienced temple keeper — well, assistant temple keeper, as she works alongside her mother in Toronto’s oldest Chinese ancestral shrine. Then … she turns into a gigantic red panda. Terrified, she tries to hide what is happening from her over-protective mother, only to learn a secret truth: for generations, the women of her family have possessed the ability to turn into red pandas. This ability, gifted to them by an ancestress centuries ago, was useful in China when their homes and families had to be defended. But here, in the West, it has become … inconvenient. And so Meilin’s red panda must be locked away in a special ceremony. Until then, she must keep the existence of the red panda a secret … but is that what Meilin really wants?

I admit that I knew almost nothing about Turning Red when I sat down to watch it. I had seen a single trailer, and then read across a few positive comments online. But it was the negative comments that caught my attention. What was this about devilish rites? And demon possession? All of that sounded like code for “not Christian, probably polytheist and/or indigenous.”

My curiosity was piqued, and I took the first opportunity to curl up on the couch and watch it.

I was not disappointed. Turning Red is a delightful coming of age film filled with wonderful characters, loving (if frustrating relationships) and, best of all, a thriving tradition of spirit work and ancestor veneration.

Plenty of other reviews have already addressed the menstruation/puberty metaphor in both the title and the story. Others have also looked at the mother/daughter dynamics. As the focus of ev0ke is on paganism, polytheism, and witchcraft, it is the spiritual element of the film that particularly interests me. It was a delight to see traditional spirit work and ancestor veneration (and of a female ancestor, no less) take such a prominent position in the narrative; actually, that drove the narrative. Without that spiritual component, this would have been “just another” coming of age tale. But here we have a young woman who makes no apologies for her “strange” non-Western traditions, and then comes to find even more value in them that she previously; by the end of the film (mild spoiler) she has fully embraced the gift that so many of her immediate female family members have chosen to cast aside and lock away. They were ashamed by the “inconvenience” of their gift; Meilin is not.

Turning Red is wonderful. The voice cast is fantastic, the animation is amazing, and the story is full of twists and turns and surprises, all resolving in a very satisfying conclusion. Highly recommended to fans of Coco, Encanto, Moana, Big Hero Six, and Pachamama.

[Reviewed by Rebecca Buchanan.]

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