Pandas, (CN) Towers, and Bands, oh my!

Turning Red quickly piqued my interest when the teaser trailer dropped.  For one, it seemed like an amusing premise.  For two, said premise involved a giant fluffy panda!  For three, it was made by Domee Shi, who directed the Oscar-winning short, Bao.  And four, it’s SET IN TORONTO.  The whole teaser and the trailer that followed were filled with such a warm sense of familiarity.  Plus, Pixar has been riding high with their last two releases.  Excitedly, I watched the movie the day it dropped…

Spoilers ahead! 

And I watched it again shortly thereafter.  The fun of seeing Toronto (in all its glory?) was just icing on the cake – Turning Red is a nifty movie that’s got some solid themes that are nicely explored along with plenty of lovely heartfelt and heartwarming moments.  And it is told with aplomb.  I found myself quite delighted by it after the first viewing; during my second viewing it hit me much harder (emotionally).  There’s some good stuff going on beneath the surface.

In many ways the film reminded me of Judy Blume’s “young adult” books.  Not in terms of the plot or the situations, but more so in what the film portrays about that time in our lives when we move from being children into our teenage years… and ALL the things that come with it.  Changes and growth and more, be they in the physical, personality, interpersonal, family, identity, getting a greater awareness of the world around you, questioning the previously unquestioned, and so on.  And Turning Red treats them all with honesty and respect (even when there’s humour).  As a movie (and thus the runtime won’t support it), it doesn’t go as far or as broad as the Blume books can, but over the course of its runtime it does manage to cover a good bit of ground.

Which is very cool to see Pixar be willing to go there!  And equally cool is how stylized it is!  Delightfully not rote, I’m excited to see that, in both the themes and the style, Pixar is allowing themselves to be different, to experiment, and to tackle the unusual.  Now to be fair, Pixar does have a history of tackling the unusual, so this is a continuation of that, but Turning Red (and Lucah before it) really begins to break out from the Pixar ‘look’.  Taking risks and boldly swinging for the fences FTW!

The film even sidesteps what might be the expected trajectory in a “typical” story of this ilk, at least in terms of plot (and especially in terms of “hijinks ensue”-type things).  I wouldn’t necessarily say it subverts them, since I don’t think that was it’s aim, but more so that it always keeps its focus on the characters and their development, and, because of that, many standard storytelling devices or expected trajectories fall by the wayside.  This even leads to some things that are nicely thematic fake-outs.

And that focus on the characters forms the heart of the movie, in both senses of the word.  There are a tonne of heartwarming interactions between the characters, both main and supporting (including some between background characters too!), and through those interactions is where the themes and exploration of puberty (in, as I noted above, all its facets) occurs.  The magical aspects are used not to generate disconnected tension but rather to support the characters’ journey and thus their story.

  • As a movie about the liminal it, in some ways, shares a bit of thematic overlap with the film Luca. It’s of a different kind here, as it both foregrounds the transition and is more specific in its focus (specifically, the relationship between Ming and Mei).  It’s also more prominently about the experience of the time rather than just occurrence and outcomes of the change.
  • There’s also a bit of theme sharing with Encanto, in terms of intergenerational trauma. Here though I’d say it’s less prominent in this movie, as the trauma is “less severe” (not that trauma is something to be ranked…).  Still, Turning Red a great display and reminder of when we have things that we have not resolved and are not complete with (in this case, Ming’s relationship with both her panda and, more so, her mother) we will those incompletions forward and inflict them on others, potentially (or even likely) transferring that incompletion onto them, and with that all the fallout and impacts of the incompletion.
  • There’s an interesting read that postulates that the reason Ming’s panda is so huge isn’t just a fluke, it’s also because your panda grows (and gets more destructive) the more you bottle it up. So the more you repress your emotions, the more you try to keep parts of yourself locked up, the more you don’t give yourself the freedom to be, then the more it feeds resentment and frustration and anger and, hence, the larger your panda gets. Ming’s last outburst, which hurt her mother, caused her to tamp down on it so hard that, no matter how large it may have been before, now it’s gargantuan. Under this reading, Ming having her panda spirit placed into the tamagotchi is kinda brilliant, as it forces her to relate to it and keep herself present to it, and interact with it (and, through the metaphor, with all the bits of herself, including the ones she may deem messy) in a more healthy way.
  • Even without the above read, when the grandmother tells Mei that the more she brings out her panda the less likely she will be able to contain it (and will lose control of herself to it), that advice is intentionally (by the script, not by the grandmother) incorrect as an exploration of the theme. Repressing, ignoring, or locking things away is what will make you lose control of the panda; owning it, being with it, and, crucially and at the same time, not giving into it but rather learning to guide it to productive and positive outcomes that enliven and empower is where the real magic lies, panda or no panda.
  • Tyler is another example of the movie’s commitment. Even though he’s a tertiary character and feels like he might only be there to be an instigator, he instead gets an arc that is fully within the theme:  It’s strongly implied that Tyler doesn’t have any deep friendships, which leads to him acting out/trying to act tough to create an impression to attract others to him, but he still needs to buy the panda or else people might not come to his party, which he’s holding to again attract others to him,  but even when the panda is there he needs encouragement to actually begin dancing, because for all his bravado he’s not (yet) confident in who he is.  And then there’s his embarrassment for his love of 4*Town.  Clearly, he’s dealing with a lot of stuff too!  And when he learns he doesn’t need to be or act in that way, and when he is welcomed into the “sisterhood”, he is so much more at ease and free.
  • Which itself is also great, how Mei and her friends immediately welcome Tyler into their friend group. Forgiveness and grace, through recognition not only of their shared love of a thing (and given their excitement to be at the 4*Town concert I think it’s totally believable the girls would be willing to let Tyler in and share in that excitement) but also the recognition that Tyler is going through the same kind of struggles (not the same struggles per se, but the same kind) they are.  It’s a “Be kind; everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle” type moment.
  • Speaking of 4*Town… those songs sure are darn catchy!
  • To which I love, love, love how, AGAIN, the theme is carried throughout the film, this time through the music. At the climax, when the ritual chant merges with Somebody Like U, it’s demonstrating how Mei (and us) doesn’t need to choose between one or the other, doesn’t need to destroy the past to create a future, doesn’t need to lose her history and what she already holds dear to be herself and hold even more dear.  She can bring them together.
  • I like Jin’ understated yet super kindhearted and full of love nature. That pivotal scene with Mei and the camcorder is a great culmination of all we’ve seen of him to that point.  And I love that bit where he just points to himself with his little smile is golden – it says so much with so little.
  • All of the above said, I do think that the film could have used a bit more runtime to tease those philosophical bits out more, expound on them more, and give us time to sit with it so we can let them sink in. There’s a lot of power in these moments (and I’m sure I’ll be doing my own expounding about them soon…) and while they’re something we can all benefit from they’re especially strong for children going through that period in their lives.  (Then again, maybe I’m wrong, and though they may not be as explicit the gist of it gets expressed enough through the story, so that extra explicitness isn’t necessary.  What do you think?)
  • Obviously, I liked aplenty that it took place in Toronto. Even though I’d moved away from the area years before when the movie is set (2002) it still felt wonderfully familiar.  Not to mention it’s great to see Toronto actually play itself, and not be used as pretend other city…
  • And how can I not love a movie that has the CN Tower in it again and again and again and again? I’ve always loved that tower, even if I can’t entirely explain why.  I especially got a kick out of the kaiju-roaring shadow on the base of the tower – that’s a fun shot!
  • Plus, there were a bunch of Canadianisms in the dialogue that I didn’t even notice were there until some friends (who are not Canadian) pointed them out to me! Nice authenticity.
  • Not to mention this probably is the most diverse Pixar movie ever, and I love that!
  • I also totally love the bit near the end where Mei asks, “Am I going to regret this?” and Sun Yee responds by smiling in comfort and joy, embracing Mei and poofing them both into pandas as she flies them both high above the astral plane bamboo forest to gaze upon the moon and the wondrous beauty and opportunity, proud of Mei for all she’s willing to take on and be and telling her she has all the support she needs to make it work.
  • One of the working titles for Turning Red was My Neighbour Toronto, as a play on the (sublime and awesome) Miyazaki movie, My Neighbour Totoro.
  • One thing that does stand out as odd and perhaps the most movie-logic moment (which is saying something about a story that has a girl who can turn into a giant panda in it…) is the rather laid-back response the city seems to have to the destruction of the Skydome. Though that $100M the family seems to need to raise is going to be one heck of tall order.
  • I’ve read some complaints that its animation and character design is simple or looks cheap, and I do not agree with that one bit. Especially since I know just how hard it is to make something “simple” look good.  There’s a lot of care happening here, from the pastel take on Toronto to the expressiveness of the characters (seriously, watch some of them in the background and you get a whole world of interiority from just their reactions) to the strangely hyperreal food, to the anime-inspired moments, to the amazing fur on panda Mei.  It’s a treat to watch.

I very much enjoyed Turning Red.  It’s fun, it’s got some spunk, it’s got Toronto, and it deals with the tumultuous times/theme of puberty with care (and without belittlement or mockery) and with meditative/philosophical exploration.  The storytelling is solid, the visuals are sweet, the music is catchy, and the panda is fluffy.  A good deal all around.  I rate Turning Red a Good Minus and do recommend it.

(Ok, I’m not sure it’s possible to avoid also commenting on that now infamous review of Turning Red (even if it was quickly pulled offline).  To which I’ll try to be brief, but, wow, it was such a bad take, because 1) it’s strange to say you couldn’t connect to it, since I’m assuming you were also once a child who grew up, with all the messiness and change that comes with it 2) even if you couldn’t connect to it, plenty others most certainly could and will and so you thinking that the film would be limited is both false and your exhausted comes off as whiny because it didn’t suit you completely 3) that’s a doubly bogus sentiment too since I’m sure you felt that you could connect to lots of other situations in movies that would otherwise seem limiting, such as being a billionaire tech infused superhero, a laser sword wielding space wizard, someone in a warzone, or, heck, what about living cars and robots and clown fish? 4) but above ALL is this:  This is unfamiliar to you?  GOOD.  That’s one of the main beauties and GIFTS we have as humans through storytelling: the ability to get out of our heads and have experiences that are beyond ourselves.  And through that, to discover and learn about them and about ourselves.  We grow through our experiences; gaining another’s experience through story therefore helps us grow even more.  And we begin to realize that there are other people in this world and that they have thoughts and feelings that are just as valid as our own.  Storytelling is therefore a pathway to developing our empathy.  And so to say, in a publication, where movie critics are intended to do criticism and not just opinionism, that you couldn’t connect with something because it was specific to a particular community, ethnicity, or gender, and moreover that you refused to connect with it, and yet moreover still solely because of that unfamiliarity and specificity you found it exhausting to watch, is not only a weird statement to say but shows an utter and complete lack of understanding of what film and storytelling and even in general are all about.)

2 thoughts on “Pandas, (CN) Towers, and Bands, oh my!

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