Tuesday 6 February 2024

Panda pop: "Turning Red"

Disney are giving a handful of their pandemic-era straight-to-streaming offerings a belated theatrical release in coming weeks, perhaps with an eye to picking up the commercial slack after the underperformance of Wish and the most recent Marvel spinoffs. The project begins this Lunar New Year weekend with the relaunch of 2022's Oscar-nominated Turning Red, one of Pixar's livelier digimations of late, and further evidence of that great boom in Asian-American creativity that in the past few years has given us the so-so Mulan redo, but also the excellent network sitcom Fresh Off The Boat, the much-garlanded Everything Everywhere All at Once, the bestilled Past Lives and the current Netflix fave The Brothers Sun. Yet in following up her weird and wonderful short Bao - a fully-fledged Oscar-winner back in 2019 - co-writer/director Domee Shi has been encouraged to find the difference within the difference; demographic representation isn't all the feature has up its sleeve. For starters, she alights upon a fresh-looking setting in the closeknit streets that make up Toronto's Chinatown (some wag has to have made the crack that even our entirely pixellated productions are now heading north for tax breaks), and a distinctively gawky and maladroit heroine in pre-teen high-schooler Meilin (voiced by Rosalie Chiang): bespectacled, unruly of eyebrow, unable to sit still for a minute of screentime, and about to hit puberty in a spectacular way, after she wakes up one morning transformed into a giant red panda. It is at once the kind of batshit conceit - part manga, part Kafka - one might only film as animation, and even then after a long struggle to sneak it past the various straitlaced committees and moneymen involved. Yet as Shi must have realised while rendering sequences of the newly hirsute Meilin running across the city's rooftops, it would also be pitchable as a distaff variation on that Spider-Man legend the men of Hollywood have been profitably labouring over for two decades now - a film about finding one's power in menstruation rather than ejaculation.

The limitations here are down to Turning Red being PG-rated Disney product: there's only so much it can show and do. Meilin's transformation into a furry, growly, stinky mess is literally framed as, in large part, a reaction to the terse conservatism of her family. (An opening photomontage shows her and her parents clad in matching Mr/Mrs/Miss Entrepreneur T-shirts, defining a more stereotypical outlet for Chinese creativity.) Yet the alternatives the film presents us with aren't as radical as they might have been. Even the riled-up Meilin is still a cute talking critter, positioned in a long tradition of shapeshifters both within and without the narrative; her residual (and, it's implied, lifesaving) boyband worship is played straight (contra the more satirical "Boyz 4 Now" gags in Bob's Burgers), such that Turning Red often seems to be counselling not to let Mother Nature get in the way of being a good little consumer. There's some tail-off, then, the initial eruptions of transgressive energy proving more memorable than what follows: one of those knotty-plotty Act Twos that come as standard with mid-period Pixar, and a stompy showdown between rival pandas that was at least conceived with the big screen in mind. That visual dynamism is the consolation prize, and keeps the film engaging over its 100 minutes. These characters move like few others in the Pixar canon, equally uneasy on foot and paw; while a flicker or two of surrealism (like the forest dreamscape that suggests House of Flying Daggers redesigned by Dali) bodes well for future Shi/Pixar work. Even the Toronto scenes display that heightened sensitivity to light and texture that distinguishes the best Pixar films: the corrugated cardboard panda costume Meilin knocks up, Peter Parker style, to contain her outbursts is a wondrous, quasi-tangible object, while the roseate sundown glow of Shi's exteriors thoughtfully recontextualises the heroine's condition as a wholly natural state of affairs, a circulation change that may be an inconvenience but can also ultimately be endured and lived with. Such choices indicate Turning Red has been lovingly fussed over rather than simply knocked out; and its feminist elements ("my panda, my choice" and all) feel integrated rather than merely cosmetic. For youngsters approaching this pivotal moment, the whole would make a sound double-bill with the recent Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret - the same underlying story, only paler and with a dash more storytelling assurance.

Turning Red is currently streaming on Disney+, and opens in cinemas nationwide from Friday.

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