Review: ‘Turning Red,’ starring the voices of Rosalie Chiang, Sandra Oh, Ava Morse, Maitreyi Ramakrishnan, Hyein Park, Orion Lee and Tristan Allerick Chen

March 7, 2022

by Carla Hay

Abby (voiced by Hyein Park), Miriam (voiced by Ava Morse), Priya (voiced by Maitreyi Ramakrishnan) and Mei (voiced by Rosalie Chiang) in “Turning Red” (Image courtesy of Disney/Pixar Animation Studios)

“Turning Red”

Directed by Domee Shi 

Culture Representation: Taking place in Toronto in 2002, the animated film “Turning Red” features a racially diverse cast of characters (Asian, white and a few black people and Latinos) portraying the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: Due to an inherited family trait, a 13-year-old girl finds out that she can turn into a giant red panda when she gets very emotional, and she has to decide if she will keep or get rid of this family trait.

Culture Audience: “Turning Red” will appeal primarily to people interested in entertaining but somewhat predictable animated films that are stories about coming of age and about mother-daughter relationships.

Ming (voiced by Sandra Oh) and Mei (voiced by Rosalie Chiang) in “Turning Red” (Image courtesy of Disney/Pixar Animation Studios)

The comedic animated film “Turning Red” can at times get too one-note and formulaic in its themes of identity and self-discovery, but the movie has enough offbeat charm to make it a memorable coming-of-age story. The movie explores issues that are familiar to movies about children who are descendants of immigrants, such as whether to follow “old country” traditions or “current country” lifestyles. It’s a story that people of many generations and cultures can enjoy.

“Turning Red” is the feature-film debut of director Domee Shi, who won an Academy Award for Best Animated Short, for her 2018 film “Bao.” According to the “Turning Red” production notes, “Turning Red” (which was co-written by Shi and Julie Cho) is based on a lot of Shi’s real-life experiences as a Canadian child in a Chinese immigrant family. The story, which takes place in Toronto in the spring of 2002, is about a 13-year-old girl who finds her own identity, even when she has people telling her who she should be and what she should do.

The 13-year-old protagonist of “Turning Red” is Meiling “Mei” Lee (voiced by Rosalie Chiang), a smart, obedient and admittedly dorky eighth grader at Lester B. Pearson Middle School in Toronto. Mei is the only child of domineering, overprotective mother Ming Lee (voiced by Sandra Oh) and laid-back and mild-mannered father Jin Lee (voiced by Orion Lee), who both moved to Canada before Mei was born. Ming is the boss of the Lee Family Temple, which is a tourist attraction in Toronto’s Chinatown district. Jin appears to be a stay-at-home father. Mei works part-time as an assistant temple keeper at the Lee Family Temple, where she does menial tasks such as cleaning.

Mei is a self-described overachiever who’s not very popular at school, but she has a tight-knit trio of friends who are students at the same school. Miriam (voiced by Ava Morse) is tomboyish and goofy. Priya (voiced by Maitreyi Ramakrishnan) is bookish and sarcastic. Abby (voiced by Hyein Park) is feisty and hot-tempered. All four girls are somewhat obsessive fans of a boy band named 4*Town, which will be performing an upcoming concert at the Toronto SkyDome, a stadium that can seat 40,000 to 50,000 people. (In real life, the Toronto SkyDome name was changed to Rogers Centre in 2005.)

Because Ming is very strict and suspicious of anything that she thinks could lead Mei to rebel, she won’t let Mei go to the concert. Ming tells Mei that 4*Town’s inoffensive pop music is “filth.” It’s around this time that Mei finds out that the women in her family have inherited a trait where they turn into giant red pandas when they get emotional. When Mei is a panda, she’s about 8 feet tall. Mei discovers this family gene when she wakes up as a giant panda. And later, she predictably turns into a panda when she’s in school, which leads to a humiliating experience.

Mei’s parents tell her that the red panda trait can be suppressed/cured with an ancient ritual during the next red moon, which takes place the following month, on May 25. Meanwhile, Mei finds out that her schoolmates actually like when she transforms into Red Panda Mei, because she’s more spontaneous and fun-loving as a panda. And so, Mei and her three pals come up with a scheme to get enough money to go to the 4*Town concert, which will cost them $200 a ticket. The red panda ritual and the concert are part of a “race against time” aspect to this movie.

“Turning Red” infuses this somewhat simplistic comedic story with more complex commentary about generational traditions and mother-daughter relationships, especially toward the end of the film. Ming expects Mei to put family duties above Mei’s social life, which is why Mei doesn’t hang out with her friends after school as much as she would like to because Mei often has to work at the temple. “Turning Red” has many nods to Eastern culture (which puts emphasis on family/community) and Western culture (which puts emphasis on individuality), as well as the conflicts that can arise when someone, such as Mei, is caught between the contrasts of these cultures.

For example, Ming tells Mei that the red panda trait originated from an ancient female ancestor named Sun Yee, who was a warrior, scholar and poet at a time when women rarely had those roles. During a war, when most of the men were off fighting in the war, Sun Yee prayed to the gods to give her a way to defend her daughter and their village. The gods answered her prayer by giving her the ability to turn into a giant red panda. This ability was passed on to all of Sun Yee’s female descendants. This inherited trait could be considered a blessing for those who see it as good for a community, or it could be seen as a curse for those who see it as bad for an individual.

In the movie’s opening scene, Mei makes a comment that shows how she’s conflicted between the need to get the approval of her family (namely, her mother) and her need to be her own person who can make her own decisions. She says in a voiceover as a montage of her life flashes on screen: “The No. 1 rule in my family: Honor your parents … The least you can do is everything they ask. Honoring your parents is great, but if you take it too far, you might forget to honor yourself.”

Other parts of the movie repeat scenarios where Mei would like to think that she’s independent and free to do what she wants, but then something happens (usually involving Mei’s mother Ming) where Mei is made to feel guilty or pressured to do things that will make her parents proud and honor the family. Ming already has Mei’s life mapped out for her and expects Mei to have a career as secretary-general of the United Nations. Ming is also extremely judgmental and wants to control every aspect of Mei’s life.

For most of the movie, Ming is a caricature of a “helicopter mom,” who hovers and often interferes with Mei’s life to the extent that it causes a series of embarrassments for Mei. For example, when Mei wakes up one morning to find out that she has turned into a giant red panda, Mei is so confused and frightened, she won’t let her parents in her bedroom, but she wails through the door: “I’m a gross red monster!”

Ming misinterprets Mei’s “gross red monster” comment as Mei getting her menstrual period for the first time. That misunderstanding leads to a scene where Ming shows up unannounced at Mei’s school to deliver sanitary pads to her. Much to Mei’s understandable mortification, Ming gets into a fight with a security guard over it in front of Mei and her classmates, while Ming shouts that she just wants to deliver sanitary pads that Mei forgot at home. Of course, Ming eventually finds out the truth, and that’s when Mei’s parents tell Mei about their family’s red panda secret.

It isn’t until the last third of “Turning Red” that Ming stops being a caricature and starts being more of a fully developed character, as some of her human frailties and vulnerabilities emerge. This gradual reveal of Ming’s true character is one of the best aspects of “Turning Red,” which skillfully shows how physical appearances aren’t the only traits that can be passed down through generations. Parenting habits and the ways that parents teach children how to interact with others can also be inherited.

The movie falters a bit in how it introduces a few potential storylines for Mei’s peers, and then just lets those storylines dangle unresolved. There’s a 17-year-old boy named Devon (voiced by Addie Chandler), who’s a heartthrob to Mei, her friends and some of the other girls at Mei’s school. Devon works as a clerk at a convenience store called Daisy Mart. And when Ming finds that Mei has drawn some romantic (non-sexual) fantasy illustrations about Devon in Mei’s sketchbook/journal, Ming goes on a rampage by yelling Devon at his job and wrongfully accusing him of taking sexually advantage of Mei. And then, Devon and his storyline are completely dropped, as if his only purpose in the movie was to be a target of Ming’s misguided parental rants.

Ming also hugely disapproves of Mei’s friend Miriam, for reasons that aren’t made very clear and should have been given better explanation or context. The only explanation put forth in the movie is that Miriam, who likes to skateboard and is comfortable with herself, is perceived by Ming as a threat to Ming’s idea that Mei should be a prim and proper girl. Even though Miriam is a nice person and a supportive friend, Ming has this unsubstantiated idea that Miriam is a troublemaker who’s a bad influence on Mei. At one point in the movie, Miriam briefly mentions that Miriam’s parents aren’t very strict, which could be another reason why Ming doesn’t trust Miriam.

One of the biggest flaws of “Turning Red” is that Miriam, Priya and Abby are underdeveloped characters overall. The movie gives no sense of who these three friends are outside of any context of reacting to Mei’s emotions, offering to help Mei with any problems that she has, or discussing things that they have in common with Mei. Teenage girls talk to their close friends a lot about their personal hopes/goals and their families, but that kind of talk is very absent in this movie for Miriam, Priya and Abby. It makes Mei’s friendship with them look more one-sided than it should be.

Every movie with a school of underage children inevitably has a character who’s a school jerk/bully. In “Turning Red,” this character is Tyler (voiced by Tristan Allerick Chen), a spoiled and privileged kid, who likes to taunt Mei for being nerdy. Not much else is revealed about Tyler. That lack of information about Tyler is a missed opportunity for “Turning Red” to give better context for why school bullies like this exist and why they target certain people. The way that the movie handles the bully storyline is a little problematic, because it’s oversimplified and has a morally questionable message of buying friendships with cash, when the lesson should be that real friendships can’t be bought.

A montage near the beginning of the movie shows what a few people at the school think of Mei. A teacher says, “She’s a very enterprising, mildly annoying young lady.” A female student says that Mei is a “major weirdo.” A male student describes Mei as “an overachieving dork narc.” Mei is then seen commenting cheerfully, “I accept and embrace all labels.” Viewers of “Turning Red” are left to speculate, with nothing shown in the movie, why some students have such hostile feelings toward Mei that they would call her a “narc” (in other words, a snitch) and a “major weirdo.”

The music group 4*Town is meant to be a parody of boy bands that were popular in the early 2000s. The five members of the group—don’t ask why they’re called 4*Town, because there’s no explanation—also mirror the stereotypes of boy bands: One or two members of the group are the most popular heartthrob lead singers, while the other members are more forgettable and tend to fade in the background.

In 4*Town, the two most popular members are Robaire (voiced by Jordan Fisher) and Jesse (voiced by Finneas O’Connell), who overshadow the group’s other members: Tae Young (voiced by Grayson Villanueva), Aaron T. (voiced by Topher Ngo) and Aaron Z. (voiced by Josh Levi). All of the members of 4*Town are not in the movie long enough for them to show distinctive personalities, even though the group’s concert is at the center of the movie’s climactic action.

In real life, O’Connell is the Grammy-winning producer/songwriter who’s best known for his work with his younger sister, Billie Eilish. O’Connell and Eilish wrote three original 4*Town songs for the “Turning Red” soundtrack: “1 True Love,” “Nobody Like U” and “U Know What’s Up.” These songs are meant to sound “boy-band generic,” so don’t expect this music to win any prestigious awards. Ludwig Göransson (who won an Oscar and a Grammy for his 2018 “Black Panther” movie score) composed the musical score for “Turning Red,” which is a serviceable score but not Göransson’s best work.

All of the voice cast members are perfectly fine in their roles, while the visuals are very good but not exceptional. Many parts of the movie are predictable, but “Turning Red” is ultimately satisfying for anyone who can enjoy animated entertainment that hits all the expected notes when the protagonist is a plucky teenager.

Disney+ will premiere “Turning Red” on March 11, 2022, the same date that Disney will release the movie for a limited engagement in select U.S. cinemas.

Review: ‘Ron’s Gone Wrong,’ starring the voices of Jack Dylan Grazer, Zach Galifianakis, Ed Helms, Olivia Colman, Ron Delaney, Justice Smith and Kylie Cantrall

October 22, 2021

by Carla Hay

Ron (voiced by Zack Galifianakis) and Barney (voiced by Jack Dylan Grazer) in “Ron’s Gone Wrong” (Image courtesy of 20th Century Studios)

“Ron’s Gone Wrong”

Directed by Sarah Smith and Jean-Philippe Vine

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed U.S. city, the ainmated film ‘”Ron’s Gone Wrong” features a predominantly white cast of characters cast (with some African Americans and Asians) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A lonely adolescent boy gets a companion robot as a gift, and he finds out that the robot has flaws that can get him into trouble.

Culture Audience: “Ron’s Gone Wrong” is a family-friendly film that will appeal primarily to people who like stories about how contemporary and futuristic technology could affect humanity.

Ava (voiced by Ava Morse), Noah (voiced by Cullen McCarthy), Jayden (voiced by Thomas Burbusca), Rich (voiced by Ricardo Hurtado), Alex (voiced by Marcus Scribner) and Savannah (voiced by Kylie Cantrall) in “Ron’s Gone Wrong” (Image courtesy of 20th Century Studios)

Can an imperfect computer-operated robot be the perfect best friend for a lonely boy? That’s the question behind the animated comedy adventure film “Ron’s Gone Wrong,” which has some quirks and flaws (just like the robot in question) but is ultimately charming in how it presents issues about how much technology can or should replace a human being. “Ron’s Gone Wrong” gets a little off-track in the last third of the film by trying to cram in too many twists and turns to the story, but it eventually gets back on track to have a satisfying conclusion.

Directed by Sarah Smith and Jean-Philippe Vine (with co-direction by Octavio E. Rodriguez), “Ron’s Gone Wrong” treads on familiar territory in children’s oriented films where the protagonaist is a lonesome child who finds and befriends a “special companion.” The “special companion” is unusual enough that, at some point, the child has to keep the companion a secret from adults who might want to take the companion away from the child. The “special companion” could be a talking animal (“Ratatouille”), a space alien (“Lilo & Stitch”) or a computer-operated robot (“Ron’s Gone Wrong”).

“Ron’s Gone Wrong” might gets some comparisons to the Oscar-winning 2014 animated film “Big Hero 6.” However, that there aren’t many things that these two movies have in common except that they’re both animated films about an adolescent boy who has a computer-operated robot as a best friend. In “Big Hero 6,” the boy and the robot are crime-fighting superheroes. In “Ron’s Gone Wrong” the protagonist and his companion robot are supposed to be awkward misfits who have more misadventures than adventures.

The central human character in “Ron’s Gone Wrong” is an adolescent boy named Barney Pudowski (voiced by Jack Dylan Grazer), who is a seventh grader at Nonsuch Middle School, which is an unnamed U.S. city. Barney doesn’t have any close friends or siblings. And he’s the only student who doesn’t have the world’s hottest technology device: a Bubble Bot, also known as a B-Bot.

A B-Bot is a talking robot that is shaped like a giant pill capsule and is about the size of a toddler child. Every single B-Bot has a computer algorithm that can detect from a person’s handprints what that person’s preferences and memories are, in order to make the B-Bot the perfect, custom-made friend to the person who owns the B-Bot. The B-Bots come in a box that has this label: “Best Friend Out of the Box.”

B-Bots have become such a common technology device, kids at school have a special location where the B-Bots are stored while the school’s classes are in session. The B-Bots are allowed to interact with the kids at school outside of the classroom, such as in hallways, in cafeterias, or during recess periods. Just like smartphones, B-Bots have become significant in the lifestyles of people who can afford to have this technology. Anyone who doesn’t have a B-Bot at Nonsuch Middle School is considered a social outsider and “behind the times.”

B-Bots were invented by a computer tech genius named Marc Widdell (voiced by Justice Smith), who is the CEO of the Bubble company that makes B-Bots. The beginning of “Ron’s Gone Wrong” shows Marc introducing B-Bots at a big event that’s similar to Apple Inc.’s product-reveal events. Marc’s goal to have the world populated with B-Bots is not motivated by greed but rather by an altruistic intention to rid the world of loneliness. B-Bots are programmed to not hurt people and other beings.

Marc has a second-in-command executive named Andrew (voiced by Rob Delaney), who’s in charge of the company’s sales and marketing. Andrew is selfish, dishonest and ruthlessly ambitious. He doesn’t really care if B-Bots are helping people or not. He just wants to sell as many B-Bots as possible, because he eventually wants to take over the company and replace Marc as CEO.

Meanwhile, at school. Barney is teased and bullied by other students because most of his toys are rocks. A compassionate teacher named Miss Thomas (voiced by Megan Maczko) hugs him in the schoolyard (much to Barney’s embarrassment) and tells some of the students to talk to Barney. It just makes things worse, because the students just taunt him some more about not having a B-Bot. They call Barney names like “rock boy.” Barney also feels different from most other students because he has asthma.

The chief bully is a brat named Rich (voiced by Ricardo Hurtado), who is merciless in trying to insult and humiliate Barney. Rich has two sidekicks named Alex (voiced by Marcus Scribner) and Jayden (voiced by Thomas Barbusca), who go along with whatever Rich does. Other students who end up interacting with Barney are Savannah (voiced by Kylie Cantrall), a self-centered gossip who’s obsessed with being a social media star; Noah (voiced by Cullen McCarthy), a nice guy who is kind to Barney; and Ava (voiced by Ava Morse), a brainy and empathetic acquaintance who is Barney’s secret crush.

Barney lives with his widower father Graham Pudowski (voiced by Ed Helms) and Graham’s Russian immigrant mother Donka Pudowski (voiced by Olivia Colman), who is a widow. Barney’s mother/Graham’s wife died when Barney was 2 years old. Graham owns a novelty toy and trinket company called Pudowski Novelty Exports, which is an online wholesaler. Graham works from home and does all the sales himself, which means that he works very long hours. He’s often seen on the phone trying to close deals with potential and existing clients.

Donka is old-fashioned and scatter-brained, but she adores her family. She likes to think that she’s still living on a farm in Russia instead of a city in the United States. How old-fashioned is Donda? She will bring live animals, like a chicken or a goat, with her wherever she goes.

It’s somewhat of a corny and outdated depiction of immigrants who come to America, by stereotyping immigrants as people stuck in the backwards ways of the “old country” that’s not as technologically advanced as the United States. And in other stereotype of immigrants who don’t have English as their first language, Donda speaks in broken English.

Barney likes to play with toy trains, but even that’s considered out-of-touch by his peers. He longs to have his own B-Bot. However, Barney’s loving but strict father doesn’t want Barney to have a B-Bot because he’s concerned that Barney will be like other kids who spend too much time being addicted to technology and devices, instead of having in-person human interactions and doing things like playing outdoors. Ironically, Graham has become such a workaholic who’s glued to his phone and his computer, he’s been neglecting Barney.

As for Barney’s grandmother Donda, she doesn’t trust new technology overall. Donda doesn’t mince words when she tells Barney what she thinks about B-Bots: “B-Bot is just a fad. And it costs a fortune!”

Early on in the movie, Barney turns 13 years old. His father and grandmother have a birthday party for Barney. The people who were invited to the party were some Barney’s fellow students, but none of the invited people goes to the party. Barney is also disappointed when he opens the birthday gift that he got from his father: It’s another rock toy.

Graham, who can see how miserable Barney is, feels guilty about not getting Barney the gift that Barney wanted. And so, Graham and Donda go to the nearest store that sells B-Bots to get a B-Bot as a belated birthday gift for Barney. But there’s a big problem: All B-Bots are sold-out and won’t be available for the next three months.

Just by coincidence, as Graham and Donda are leaving the store, they see some delivery truck workers in the back of the store. Graham overhears one of the workers talking about a defective B-Bot that Graham can see in the back of a truck. And the next thing you know, Barney gets a belated birthday girft. He opens up the box, and it’s the defective B-Bot, but Barney doesn’t know yet that the B-Bot is faulty. Graham has presented it as a new B-Bot.

It doesn’t take long for Barney to find out that the B-Bot has a lot of glitches. In one of many mistakes, the B-Bot (voiced by Zach Galifianakis) misidentifies Barney’s name and has programmed itself to think that Barney’s name is Absalom. One day, when Barney comes home, he finds out that the B-Bot has made his room a mess and even set a few things on fire. It’s the opposite of the helpful housecleaning duties that a B-Bot is supposed to be capable of doing.

Barney takes an instant dislike to this B-Bot and doesn’t want anything to do with it. However, the B-Bot is programmed to try to be the best friend possible to its owner. The B-Bot tags along with an annoyed Barney, who hasn’t bothered to give the B-Bot a name.

One day, school bully Rich corners Barney for some more insults and degradation at an outdoor skate park, where Rich has been showing off his skateboarding skills during a livestream for his social media. Alex and Jayden are there too. Rich thinks that harassing Barney during the livestream is hilarious.

Rich also makes fun of Barney for having a defective B-Bot. Rich hits the B-Bot, but he’s in for a shock when the B-Bot hits back. A brawl then ensues between Rich and the B-Bot. Rich’s cronies run away in fear, while Rich shouts, “Cut the livestream!”

But the damage has been done. People who saw the livestream now know that a B-Bot is capable of attacking humans. Barney later finds out that his B-Bot doesn’t have “safety settings” to prevent it from hurting people. And that’s why, to avoid a potential PR disaster and lawsuits, the Bubble company orders that the B-Bot be found, confiscated and destroyed. The police also get involved in the search.

However, Barney is impressed with how this B-Bot defended him like a friend. Barney now doesn’t want to give up his B-Bot. He tells the B-Bot, “I can fix you and teach you to be my friend.” It’s at this point that the B-Bot says his name is Ronbitscasco, but Barney calls the robot Ron, for short.

There’s a great deal of the movie that’s about Barney trying to hide Ron from people who want to take Ron away from Barney. Varous hijinks happen—some more predictable than others. Meanwhile, Ron causes a lot of mishaps along the way, which makes Barney get into even more trouble. Barney than does the most obvious thing that a kid would do who wants to hide.

“Ron’s Gone Wrong” might get some criticism for how the problems in this story are resolved. However, it’s easy to perhaps misinterpet “Ron’s Gone Wrong” as a movie that advocates for replacing human interaction and human emotions with the idea that a computer-operated robot can take care of all of a person’s needs. Instead, the message of the movie, which can be a bit muddled, is that there are certain technologies that aren’t going away anytime soon. We can either be in misguided denial and think that people will stop using this technology, or we choose to figure out ways how that technology can beneift people in a positive way.

The movie makes a point that technology, just like anything else, can be abused and used for the wrong reasons. Andrew is the obvious villain who is the epitome of this misuse. Barney knows that Ron should not be his only friend, but Ron teaches Barney to have the self-confidence to make human friends. And the movie doesn’t put all the blame on technology-obsessed kids, because there’s a part of the story that deals with how adults can unintentionally be neglectful of their children for reasons that have nothing to do with technology.

“Ron’s Gone Wrong” is a children’s oriented movie that slips some borderline adult jokes into the story, so that adult viewers can get some laughs. In one scene, Donda says that she once “mended my own hernia with a bread knife and vodka.” In other scene, there’s a recurring poop joke that becomes a plot device for something that happens to one of the students at Barney’s school. The joke might be offensive to some viewers, so consider yourself warned.

At times, “Ron’s Gone Wrong” goes a little bit too over-the-top with what these B-Bots can do. Without giving away any spoiler information, it’s enough to say that parts of this movie look inspired by the “Transformers” cartoon series. Fortunately, the movie doesn’t go off too much on this tangent. “Ron’s Gone Wrong” has some eye-catching visuals, and the cast members perform their roles well. It’s not in the upper echelon of top-quality animated films, but “Ron’s Gone Wrong” serves its purpose of being escapist entertainment that people of many generations can enjoy.

20th Century Studios released “Ron’s Gone Wrong” in U.S. cinemas on October 22, 2021.

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