Review: Turning Red is a Pixar movie that stays true to horny Toronto

TURNING RED (Domee Shi). 99 minutes. Available Friday (March 11) on Disney+. Rating: NNNNN


Turning Red makes a compelling case as the ultimate Toronto movie.

I’m not just saying that because of the local signifiers in Domee Shi’s beautiful and emotional Pixar movie: the TTC, Daisy Mart, post-war bungalows, cultural makeup of the characters representing the most diverse city in North America and more. It’s also the humble vibe, the sense that Domee Shi is telling a small, contained story about a Chinese-Canadian girl hitting puberty, in a city that often feels like it’s living in the shadow of other world-class locales.

I don’t have to elucidate the ways that women, minorities and Toronto are all made to feel small. A recent CinemaBlend review of Turning Red – where a white male writer decided that Shi made a movie just for her friends because he couldn’t relate to any of those demographics – is perhaps the most ignorant reminder. These are the conditions that hardwire the inferiority complex in us. We keep celebrating Drake, the Weeknd and the Raptors to fight that feeling.

When we get to the glorious climax of Turning Red, with a whole-ass Kaiju descending on the SkyDome circa 2002, it’s like an awakening. Our stories are seismic! They’re as big as the CN Tower!

Our stories are also pretty horny, as Variety critic Courtney Howard pointed out. The CN Tower is just a giant phallic symbol in a local movie scene that also gave us Exotica, Crash and Turning Red’s predecessor on matters of teen girl puberty, Ginger Snaps. Props to Shi for continuing our brand at Disney, an outfit full of superheroes in tights who refuse to acknowledge any below-the-belt rumblings.

Turning Red doesn’t limit all its puberty stuff to its giant red metaphor. Before Meilin, the semi-autobiographical tween doppelganger for Shi, makes that magical transformation, she’s in her bedroom, shamefully taking cover, working through a flurry of hormonal emotions. Her hands frenetically search for how to release that energy and so she proceeds to draw steamy illustrations of herself with a young hipster Daisy Mart clerk in a hilariously frantic and moist sequence. It’s one of many moments, alongside scenes of Meilin defiantly twerking and gyrating to express her sexual energy, that Shi proudly gets away with, much to the horror of Asian parents everywhere.

Courtesy of Disney/Pixar

Because this is fairly uncharted territory for big corporate kids’ fare, there’s a risk of categorizing Turning Red as a “magic puberty” movie, as if it doesn’t have all the sentiment, pathos and family values we saw in Inside Out and Coco. Shi, the first solo female feature director at Pixar, who already scored an Oscar for her short film Bao, deftly navigates big emotions in small exchanges, while honouring a story that will be intimately familiar to anyone who grew up with heavy-handed immigrant parents.

Meilin (a charming Rosalie Chang) is an overachiever eager to please her Tiger mom Ming (Sandra Oh, heartbreakingly incredible). But there’s another dimension to Meilin that can only be expressed around a trio of friends (Ava Morse, Maitreyi Ramakrishnan and Hyein Park) who mom thinks are a bad influence. You know this conflict even if the movies so rarely illustrate it.

Puberty is not just a hormonal push-pull in Turning Red. Shi and co-writer Julia Cho recognize its expansive affect, how that period in our lives and the fluctuating emotions that come with it inform the way we understand identity and negotiate the tension between friends and family, cultural tradition and what’s trending. And what’s trending here is from 2002, like baby blue Nokias, Tamagotchis and the N’Sync-inspired boy band 4*Town.

These are the conflicts that make Turning Red feel so quintessentially Toronto: not just its snow globe-like recreation of our city, where a big red panda can dash from Scarborough’s Lester B. Pearson CI to Kensington Market and Meilin’s suburb bungalow is somehow nestled in Chinatown.

All the elements in Turning Red snowball towards a 4*Town concert at the SkyDome. When we get there, a seemingly tossed off and dismissible song called Nobody Like U written by Finneas and Billie Eilish that we hear a number of times throughout the movie has accumulated emotional momentum, and a few extra voices.

It becomes one of the greatest performances the SkyDome has never seen.

@justsayrad

Read More:

Domee Shi’s Pixar love letter to Toronto

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