Greetings again from the darkness. If only the transformation brought on by puberty were half as soft and cuddly as the giant Red Panda in this latest from Pixar, imagine the reduction in slammed doors and the increase in dinner table conversations between parents and young teenagers. Writer-director Domee Shi won an Oscar for her excellent animated short film BAO (2018), and has collaborated with co-writer Julia Cho for the director’s first feature. It seems reasonable to assume that much of what we see on screen is taken from their own adolescent experiences, as well as those of countless others.
Meilin (voiced by Rosalie Chiang) is a 13-year-old 8th grader who fancies herself as a free-spirited teenager basking in her independence. However, the real story is that she’s a straight-A student obediently following the highly structured life constructed by her mother. Mei’s responsibilities include helping her mother clean the temple the family manages … the oldest temple in Toronto. It not only serves the local Chinese community by paying homage to the Gods, but it also holds a sacred place for Mei’s ancestors. Mei’s mother keeps her so duty-bound, that she’s unable to find time to karaoke with her friends.
One morning, after a particularly vivid and emotional dream, Mei is transformed into a giant Red Panda … well she pops in and out of Panda state. Her mother Ming (Sandra Oh) quickly reacts assuming her daughter’s “change” is the beginning of a menstrual cycle. But things change drastically when Ming finds out about the Red Panda. Her family has considered this a spell from the Gods, one that has followed the women for multiple generations. Mei discovers this when her grandmother and a slew of Aunts show up for the Red Moon ritual – the only way to rid Mei of the Red Panda.
Mei soon realizes her emotional outbursts are what cause the transformation. When she’s overly excited or agitated, the Red Panda appears. It’s mostly when she’s calm and at ease around her friends that she’s her ‘normal’ self. In fact, the friendships are the key to this story. Miriam (Ava Morse), Priya (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan), and Abby (Hyein Park) immediately rally to Mei’s defense and accept these startling changes. They even find a way to use it to their advantage, focusing on an upcoming concert by 4-Town, a 5 member (yep) boy band that the girls are gaga about. The music for 4-Town is co-written by Billie Eilish and Finneas O’Connell, and is humorously in line with what we’d expect (and remember) from a 2002 boy band.
We watch as Mei struggles with the emotional rollercoaster that brings out the Red Panda. It’s refreshing to see such a portrait of friendship, and also acknowledge that overbearing parents can cause stress, no matter how caring they might be. Mei learns that by letting go of the perfect kid syndrome and wallowing in her messy self, she can truly discover who she is as a young person. It’s a Pixar movie, so we fully expect life lessons and psychology to play a role. And that’s also part of the problem here. Being a Pixar film means you get compared to other Pixar films, and that’s a crazy high standard. This one doesn’t come close to the best work from the studio, although we welcome the rare look at female adolescence and friendship, as well as the impact a mother-daughter relationship can have on multiple generations.
Available exclusively on Disney+ beginning March 11, 2022