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: ‘Work It,’ starring Sabrina Carpenter, Liza Koshy, Keiynan Lonsdale and Jordan Fisher

August 7, 2020

by Carla Hay

Neil Robles, Bianca Asilo, Tyler Hutchings, Liza Koshy, Jordan Fisher, Sabrina Carpenter, Nathaniel Scarlette and Indiana Mehta in “Work It” (Photo by Brendan Adam-Zwelling/Netflix)

“Work It” 

Directed by Laura Terruso

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed U.S. city, the dramedy film “Work It” has a racially diverse cast (white, African American and Asian) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash:  A high-school senior, who’s an overachiever but a clumsy dancer, wants to win a group dance contest in order to impress a college admissions officer, so she recruits a group of misfits to train as dancers and dethrone the reigning champs.

Culture Audience: “Work It” will appeal primarily to people who like formulaic movies about students involved in dance contests.

Pictured in front row: Kalliane Bremault, Keiynan Lonsdale and Briana Andrade-Jones in “Work It” (Photo by Brendan Adam-Zwelling/Netflix)

Imagine a movie that takes almost every stereotypical plot in a teen movie and piles it on top of more clichés until it becomes a mindless mush of forgettable unoriginality. The result is the “Work It,” a dramedy that’s so derivative that even the movie’s title is recycled and bland. Directed by Laura Terruso and written by Alison Peck, “Work It” follows every formula of a teen dance movie to the point where people can predict what can happen even without seeing a second of this film. What saves “Work It” from being completely awful is much of the eye-catching choreography and the comedic talents of some of the cast members.

Here some of the high-school movie tropes in “Work it” that check a lot cliché boxes: Is there a nerdy protagonist who wants to transform into becoming more popular? Check. In “Work It,” she’s overachiever Quinn Ackerman (played by Sabrina Carpenter), a senior at the fictional Woodbright High School, which is located in an unnamed U.S. city. Quinn is consumed with her goal to get into Duke University, her late father’s alma mater.

Is there a big upcoming contest that will be a test of her popularity? Check. It’s the annual Work It dance competition, and Woodbright’s elite dance team the Thunderbirds are the reigning champs. Is there a sassy best friend who provides most of the comic relief? Check. She’s Jasmine “Jas” Hale (played by Liza Koshy), who is one of the best dancers on the Thunderbirds team.

Is there a villain? Check. The very arrogant captain of the Thunderbirds is Isaiah “Julliard” Pembroke (played Keiynan Lonsdale), who insists that people call him Julliard, because he’s convinced that he has what it takes to be admitted to this prestigious performing-arts college. Is there a love interest for the protagonist? Check. And is there a group of misfits who will band together with the protagonist to help her achieve her popularity goal? Check.

At the beginning of “Work it,” the conflict between Quinn and Julliard starts when Quinn, who has been a volunteer lightboard operator for the Thunderbirds, accidentally spills coffee on the lightboard during a Thunderbirds rehearsal. The accident results in a big electrical malfunction that singes the hair of one of the Thunderbirds named Brit Turner (played by Kalliane Bremault), who is one of Julliard’s fawning sidekicks.

Julliard storms into the studio control area with Brit and his other main sycophant Trinity (played by Briana Andrade-Jones), and rudely scolds Quinn about the mishap: “It is my responsibility to lead the team to a fourth consecutive victory!” Quinn makes a profuse apology and promises that the accident won’t happen again. But Julliard is not having it.

“Brit’s hair was singed,” he huffs imperiously. “She probably has to get bangs now, and she doesn’t have the face for it.” Julliard then haughtily fires Quinn by telling her, “You are banished from this room!”

Quinn’s feelings are hurt by the dismissal, but she has something bigger to worry about: her upcoming in-person interview with an admission officer at Duke University. Quinn, who narrates this film, explains in a voiceover that she’s fixated on attending Duke because her father was a Duke alum, and Quinn has happy memories of going to Duke football games and alumni events. Quinn says of Duke: “It feels like home—if you had a less than 6% acceptance rate.”

Quinn’s supportive mother Maria Ackerman (played by Naomi Snieckus) is equally enthusiastic about Quinn attending Duke. Maria and Quinn share a tendency to be worried, neurotic and over-prepared. They are both nervous wrecks by the time that Maria drives Quinn to Duke for Quinn’s interview.

At the interview, Quinn lists her qualifications for why she’s an ideal candidate for Duke: She’s a national Merit Scholar with a 4.0 GPA. She’s the student government treasurer at her high school. For extracurricular activities, she’s president of the school’s AV Club; she volunteers at a nursing home three days a week; and she plays the cello.

The Duke admissions officer Veronica Ramirez (played by Michelle Buteau) makes it clear to Quinn that she’s bored and unimpressed because other applicants have the same qualifications. Ms. Ramirez tells Quinn that they’re looking for risk-takers who are passionate about something, so Quinn blurts out that she really likes the Thunderbirds, who are the reigning champs of the Work It competition.

Ms. Ramirez comments that she loves the Work It competition, and she assumes that Quinn is part of the Thunderbirds dance team. Quinn doesn’t correct her and tell her the truth: That she’s not a dancer and she’s not even part of the Thunderbirds anymore as their lightboard operator.

But then, Quinn soon regrets this deliberate misleading, because Ms. Ramirez then excitedly tells Quinn that she’ll be at the Work It competition this year and that she looks forward to seeing Quinn there. The Work It contest happens before Quinn will find out if she got accepted into Duke, so she leaves the interview silently panicking over how she’s going to be able to get out of this big lie with the one person who can make or break her admission into Duke.

After thinking about writing an apology email confessing her lie, Quinn changes her mind and comes up with a desperate plan: She’ll learn how to dance in the few weeks left before the qualifying stage of the contest, audition for the Thunderbirds, and then get into the Work It competition as part of the Thunderbirds dance team. Quinn begs a reluctant Jas to be her dance teacher, by reminding Jas that Quinn has helped her with her academics, and it’s time to return the favor.

The big problem, of course, is that Quinn is an uncoordinated klutz. Quinn also wants to dancer/choreographer Jake Taylor (played by Jordan Fisher), who’s a few years older than she is, to coach her. Jake was expected to make it big as a dancer after a won a major dance contest, but his dance career was cut short after he got an anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injury, and he disappeared from the professional dance scene.

Of course, Quinn tracks him down, and finds out that he’s been making a living teaching elementary-school-aged kids how to dance. Jake still has a lot of talent, but the injury has shaken his confidence in becoming a professional dancer again. Quinn shows up unannounced at one of his classes and tells him that she wants him to teach her how to dance and she won’t take no for an anwer. He’s annoyed and amused by Quinn’s persistence and basically tells her to go away. But since he’s Quinn’s obvious love interest, this won’t be the last we see of Jake in this story.

Quinn’s audition for the Thunderbirds goes as badly as you think it does. Julliard gets a big laugh over Quinn’s humiliation, especially when she begs him to join the team. He sarcastically suggests that maybe Quinn should start her own dance team. And you just know she does.

Quinn’s first recruit is Jas, who’s reluctant at first to quit the Thunderbirds. But Julliard treats everyone on the Thunderbirds team like crap, so it isn’t long before Jas is all-in for Quinn’s team. Quinn can’t think of an official name, so she calls the team TBD—as in, to be determined.

And this is where the misfits come in: One by one, Quinn convinces other unlikely students at the school to join her team. Raven (played by Bianca Asilo) is a pessimistic Goth girl who likes to dance to heavy-metal songs for videos that she puts on social media. Chris Royo (played by Neil Robles) is a social outcast on his soccer team, but he has good rhythm. Quinn appeals to Chris’ ego by telling him that he’ll be more appreciated on her dance team than on the soccer team.

DJ Tapes (played by Nathaniel Scarlette) is a dancer who seems to be straight out of the ‘80s, with a boombox and hip-hop breakdancing style. Robby G. (Tyler Hutchins) is a tall, thin dorky type whose claim to fame is he was once seen doing a back flip. Quinn tracks him down at a karate dojo. Priya Singh (played by Indiana Mehta) is a sarcastic roller skater, who has a knack for twirling, so she’s enlisted for the dance team too.

“Work It” has the expected montages of Quinn and the rest of her motley crew being terrible dancers (except for Jas), with the expected clumsy falls and uncoordinated moves, with Quinn being the driving force for them not to give up. There’s also a running joke in the film that Jas has a crush on a hunky guy named Charlie (played by Drew Ray Tanner), who works as a salesman in a mattress store. And so, there are multiple scenes of Jas engaging in all sorts of hijinks (including asking Charlie to “spoon” with her on a bed mattress), in order to get his attention.

Koshy is one of the few bright spots in this dreadfully predictable film. Even though she and the other cast members have a lot of cringeworthy dialogue, Koshy’s comedic timing and facial expressions show that she has real knack for bringing a humorous flair that can elevate some horrible screenwriting. She’s a bit of a scene stealer. Lonsdale also looks like he’s having funny playing a flamboyant villain, even if the role at times veers too much into some stereotypical tropes that male dancers have catty, effeminate qualities.

Carpenter is just fine in her role as Quinn, the story’s heroine, although she’s played the “good girl” many times before on screen, so it’s not much of an acting stretch for her. As for Fisher, he is charming enough in his role, but his Jake character is written as kind of a blank slate, with no sense of who his family or friends are.

The chemistry and dancing between Carpenter and Fisher are fairly tame (this movie is no “Dirty Dancing”), as is most of the film’s humor. However, there is one scene where a male dancer’s erection is played for cheap laughs. The target audience for this movie is obviously kids in the age range of 12 to 17, so the erection scene is this movie’s way of being “edgy” for this type of audience.

Most of this movie’s attempts at humor fall flat and have very cheesy lines. For example, when Quinn and her dance team decide to go to the nursing home where she volunteers, so that they can practice in front of a live audience, the only person who’s in the audience is a nursing home resident, who ends up dying during the performance. Priya says as the man’s corpse is being taken away in an ambulance: “I’m pretty sure the key to a live audience is keeping them alive.”

The movie’s dancing and choreography are very “So You Think You Can Dance.” There are some eye-catching moments, but nothing that will make “Work It” a classic dance film. The movie’s soundtrack is also a predictable collection of pop tunes, including Dua Lipa’s “Break My Heart,” Normani’s “Motivation,” Ciara’s “Thinkin Bout You,” Meghan Trainor’s “Treat Myself” and Zara Larsson’s “WOW.”

All the energy put into the dance numbers still can’t erase the fact that “Work It” is hopelessly lazy when it comes to the generic way that the story is told. The only steps that this vapid movie seems concerned with are those that move from story cliché to story cliché.

Netflix premiered “Work It” on August 7, 2020.

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