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< 'Turning Red' paints teenage feelings in rich, vibrant colors

< 'Turning Red' paints teenage feelings in rich, vibrant colors

AISHA HARRIS, HOST:

Pixar is back with another movie aiming to hit you in all the feels - "Turning Red." It's about a charismatic 13-year-old girl named Meilin who's torn between honoring her mother's wishes and having fun with her friends.

STEPHEN THOMPSON, HOST:

One morning, things get weird. Meilin is mortified to discover that whenever she gets too excited about anything, she now turns into a giant red panda. Chaos ensues. The film features the voice talent of Sandra Oh, as well as some fun nods to the early 2000s boy band era. I'm Stephen Thompson.

HARRIS: And I'm Aisha Harris. And today, we're talking about "Turning Red" on POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR.

Here with me and Stephen is writer Kat Chow. Her memoir, "Seeing Ghosts," is available now. Hey, Kat.

KAT CHOW, BYLINE: Hi. Glad to be on.

HARRIS: And also joining us is Laura Sirikul. She's a freelance writer and movie critic. Welcome back, Laura.

LAURA SIRIKUL: Hi. Thank you so much - so excited.

HARRIS: Yeah, me too.

Now, in "Turning Red," Rosalie Chiang voices Meilin "Mei" Lee, a spunky 13-year-old girl living in Toronto in the early 2000s. She lives with her soft-spoken dad, Jin, voiced by Orion Lee, and an extremely overprotective mom, Ming, voiced by Sandra Oh. Her best friends are Miriam, Priya and Abby, voiced by Ava Morse, Maitreyi Ramakrishnan and Hyein Park. They share an obsession with the boy band 4*Town who just so happen to be performing in Toronto very soon. Mei is a straight-A student who often ditches her friends - much to their dismay - to help her mom with the family business, an ancestral family temple that welcomes tourists. After her mom pulls an extremely embarrassing move in front of Mei's classmates, she wakes up one morning to discover she turns into a giant red panda whenever her emotions go into overdrive. As Mei learns to tame her emotions, she discovers a hidden familial history behind her condition, and her relationship with Ming begins to break down. The movie is directed by Domee Shi, who previously directed the Oscar-winning Pixar short "Bao." "Turning Red" is streaming exclusively on Disney Plus. So, Laura, let's start with you. What did you think of "Turning Red"?

SIRIKUL: Oh, I absolutely loved "Turning Red." It's such a great and heartwarming story about just growing up and what it means to grow up and the relationships that changes between your family and your friends. And I just felt it was touching, relatable and just really funny and lighthearted. And culturally, it just felt connected with being part of the Asian diaspora.

HARRIS: Yeah. I also connected with this movie as well, and it's also set in the exact time period when I was about that age, so it's kind of perfect (laughter). But I'm sure we'll talk a little bit about that later. Kat, what did you think?

CHOW: I, first of all, love anything that Sandra Oh is in. I think, oh, a few years ago, one of my new year's resolutions was to just watch everything that Sandra, you know, voiced or acted in, and it's really compelling to watch her even voice this mother figure. I mean, who wouldn't want Sandra Oh, as, you know, kind of, mommy?

(LAUGHTER)

CHOW: But if Sandra Oh wants to be in an adaptation of "Seeing Ghosts" - would not be opposed. But I think that there's this quality that she brings to "Turning Red" that is almost uncomfortable but in an exciting way, where this mother figure is not easy. She is uncomfortable in the way that she, you know, mortifies her daughter. She has moments, without giving too much away, at the end, where it's almost a little bit frightening, but so out of love. And I love how this movie plays with control, and it just pushes the edges of what Pixar and Disney, I think, touches on. There's puberty. There's jokes about periods. There's jokes about lust. And I found it really exciting.

HARRIS: Yeah. I totally hear you on the Sandra Oh factor, and...

(LAUGHTER)

HARRIS: It is very uncomfortable. There's similarities, I feel like, to "Encanto" in terms of, like, the abuela. The grandmother is kind of, like, the worst. And then here...

CHOW: Yeah.

HARRIS: Sandra Oh's character is kind of the worst...

CHOW: Yeah.

HARRIS: ...For a lot of the movie.

THOMPSON: Yeah.

HARRIS: So, Stephen, how about you? What was your take on this?

THOMPSON: I ultimately came down loving this movie, but it was a little bit of a slow starter for me. I - my initial reaction to kind of those opening scenes was, OK, this is slight Pixar. This is very playful and colorful and sweet, but the metaphor hits you like - to use another metaphor - a runaway freight train. There's definitely a lot of block-that-metaphor energy early on in this film. But not very far into it, it just - suddenly, for me, just locked in, and I fell in love with it. I think it has so much to say, not only about its central metaphors around puberty and just the way your life changes and your relationship to your parents and your friends change, but also a lot of these intergenerational burdens and responsibilities that come up over the course of this film. This film - I'm not giving anything away - its final moment, its final statement, I threw my fists in the air in triumph. This movie stuck the landing so hard for me, and I just ultimately fell completely in love with it.

And you guys acknowledged one thing that I really think is so important to how well this film works - is that it's set in 2002. If they had tried to set it in 2022, based on the experiences of someone who was 13 in 2002, it would not work as well because life for 13-year-olds is different in 2022 than it is for kids in 2002. Kids' relationship to gender is completely different. Kids' relationship to music is different. Kids' relationship to everything is different. And so this movie manages all this specificity, and it's specific to 2002, but the themes still resonate, I think, for kids today, as well as their parents. This was a big, big win for me.

HARRIS: Yeah. I was also very much all in for this, and especially - I love my mom.

(LAUGHTER)

HARRIS: But there were definitely some overprotective moments. I remember my first day of middle school - actually, my first few days of middle school, my mom drove behind the bus...

THOMPSON: Oh.

SIRIKUL: Oh.

HARRIS: ...That was taking me to school 'cause she was, like, concerned I wasn't going to get there (laughter).

THOMPSON: Oh, man.

SIRIKUL: Oh, my gosh.

HARRIS: And, like...

CHOW: And did the other kids see?

HARRIS: Yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

HARRIS: They absolutely did see 'cause she would be there, like, directly behind the bus. It was, like, so embarrassing. Now, it wasn't as embarrassing as what Ming does here...

THOMPSON: Which is so bad.

HARRIS: Yes.

THOMPSON: (Laughter).

HARRIS: It's not really a spoiler because it ultimately doesn't wind up being about this moment so much...

CHOW: Yeah.

HARRIS: But, like, this was a moment I loved - was seeing Mei sort of being this 13-year-old. She's lusting after this boy, and she starts drawing him and drawing him in, like, the way, like, a 13-year-old girl would, but kind of hunky. And you can tell she's kind of learning what it means to be attracted to boys. And then when her mom finds it, she, like, storms down and, like, thinks that something is happening between Mei and this older - slightly older boy. That is mortifying. I could totally relate to that, even though that never happened to me, I just felt myself turning into a 13-year-old again. And I think that's supposed to be...

THOMPSON: And also, a panda.

HARRIS: And also, a panda, which I learned - I didn't realize this, but red pandas are tiny.

SIRIKUL: They're so small.

CHOW: They're not like Totoro.

HARRIS: No, not at all. But I think what I really loved about this was that and also just the way in which Pixar here is playing a lot with animation. Like, you know, there's moments in "Inside Out," which I think draws a little bit from that, that film. But there's the moments and "Inside Out" where she's going through her emotions. And you see like Cubism and all these different things. And they're playing with it here where you're seeing a little bit of anime going on in like the eyes. Whenever they get really excited, their eyes blow up and well up in that anime way. And so I really appreciated what they were trying to do with making this feel really bouncy and alive in that way, not just in the dialogue, but also in the animation. I thought it was really cool.

SIRIKUL: I really loved the East-meets-West theme that they have, like, with the cultural, like, Canadian and Chinese, like, the blends of the worlds. And then they also put it in the animation of, like, East meets West, with the Japanese anime mixed with the Pixar magic. So I really loved that they both reflected the story as well, like, with the animation and the story.

CHOW: Yeah. I totally agree. I mean, one of the references that I mentioned before that I just kept seeing when I first watched this movie was Totoro, "My Neighbor Totoro," which is Miyazaki. And it's so endearing and also nostalgic in a different way to see these types of references where the red panda just has that sort of really soft, giant cuddly vibe. And I really loved also how the goddess for the red panda reminded me of a lot of Chinese statues that my family would have at home like Guanyin, where if you, you know, look up a statue of Guanyin and Google it and then also look up the goddess in the movie, there's really references to it that were so familiar. And I really appreciated that level of detail. And I think that's a testament to Domee Shi's talent and what she brings to the table, which is unique for Pixar, given their history of who's directing and who's making their films.

HARRIS: Yeah.

SIRIKUL: I also love, like, she brought in her culture, her, like, the - and there's aspects that, like, it's just subtle. It's so subtle. Yeah, we saw the food being created, and it's beautiful. Like, it's reflective of the culture that we live in. But it's also - there's a subtle nod of the toilet paper roll in the living room that you know, Asians use for, like, regular tissue every day. Like, we don't use Kleenex. We use, like, a roll of tissue that's in the living room. And I saw those subtleties. And I screamed just seeing it. It's just so tiny. It doesn't take over - like, so people, everyone can understand and relate to the story. But then you just see these subtle Asian, like, nods to the culture. And I really just appreciated being seen in that light in that way, too, because we don't forget that where she came from as well.

HARRIS: Yeah.

THOMPSON: Well, and it's interesting you mentioned Domee Shi. I mean, she's best known for making the Pixar short "Bao," which won an Oscar. And I remember when "Bao" first dropped. It's weird.

(CROSSTALK)

THOMPSON: It has really, really resonated with a lot of people. But, like, it is weird if you're not accustomed to her voice and her style. And one of the things that I love about this movie is, as much as it's cute and it's pitched to a fairly young audience in a lot of ways, but it's still weird. It still has some of the elements of "Bao" where you go (gasping) what?

CHOW: Yeah. There's an edge to it, where it's a little bit macabre, but really, you know, specific.

HARRIS: Yeah. I mean, the last few movies or a lot of the last few movies that Pixar and Disney have made have kind of dealt with, like, ancestors and lineage and family. Whether you're thinking of "Coco," "Raya And The Last Dragon," even the most recent remake of "Mulan," they're all kind of dealing with ancestry and whatnot. And I'm curious as to, like, what you make of that.

CHOW: I'm really glad you brought this up, Aisha, because it's something that I've been thinking a lot about, especially in a Chinese diaspora context. And there's so much about ancestor veneration in pop culture with "Over The Moon," for example, which is an animated film that came out in the past couple of years. And as much as I love it, I really would love to see just, you know, a Chinese Canadian teenager just going about her life. But at the same time, ancestor veneration is a big part of my family, at least. And so it's wonderful to see it so seamlessly tied in. But it would be also interesting to see it not be a huge plot point where we don't see the spirits embodied. But, I mean, for me in particular and my preferences, just wrote a book about spirits being embodied and ancestral veneration, so I think I'm kind of biased toward that. But I'm sure and I'm hoping that in a few years or the coming years, we'll see more. I think this is just, in a way, a starting point.

SIRIKUL: Yeah. I'm just glad there's no dragons. I think I've spoken to Stephen about this where there's, like, dragons in everything regarding Asian culture in every story like "Raya," "Shang-Chi" and "Mulan." And red panda is not, like, a Chinese thing. I mean, we are - it is in China, but it's not like a real, like, mythical creature that we praise and everything. And so I appreciated that aspect. I'm hoping that we get over it and we actually have Westernized Asians like this movie because this movie does mention honor thy parents, but this is the first time I've seen the movie where the movie was like, honor thyself first, too. Because usually it's like those - other movies, it's like, oh, we have to love our parents. We have to listen to our parents. And it's, like, honor thy parents. Like, "Mulan," the whole focus is to honor her family. But with this one...

CHOW: It's like filial duty propaganda.

SIRIKUL: Yeah. And yes, this movie does tell you that, to honor thy parents. But this movie also understands the western culture of being like Asian American, Asian Canadian of you got to grow up too for yourself. And you got to think for yourself. And things change. And in the movie reflected, like, Eastern and Western cultures are so different and, you grow up differently. And so I appreciated that the story kind of reflected for people who are part of the diaspora and not just be Chinese or just be Asian.

CHOW: One of my favorite elements of the movie was Meilin's friends.

SIRIKUL: Yes.

HARRIS: Yeah.

CHOW: It looked like there was another Asian Canadian friend, and, you know, it was a really diverse group of friends who just understood that going home and having to clean and take care of the temple is just part of what she has to do. There's no explanation. It's just there. And I really appreciated that aspect.

HARRIS: Yeah.

THOMPSON: I do want to acknowledge one other thing that I think this movie gets very, very, very right. And that is the original songs...

< 'Turning Red' paints teenage feelings in rich, vibrant colors

CHOW: Yes.

THOMPSON: ...For the band 4*Town...

CHOW: Yes.

THOMPSON: ...As written by Finneas O'Connell and Billie Eilish.

CHOW: So good.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NOBODY LIKE U")

4 TOWN: (Singing) You're never not on my mind. Oh my, oh my. I'm never not by your side, your side, your side. I'm never gon' (ph) let you cry, oh, cry.

THOMPSON: I think those get the feel of early 2000s boy band music really, really right. And the recasting of Finneas as a boy band singer - because he is one of the singers voicing the group 4*Town. And I got to say, one of the many things that is so smart about setting this in 2002 is that there is a plot point in this film where they're trying to raise money to buy tickets to this concert. And if they were doing that in 2022, for four tickets, they'd have to raise about 20 grand. So...

HARRIS: Oh, my God.

SIRIKUL: It's so true.

HARRIS: Even the amount they have to raise for this, which is - what? - $800 for all four of them...

THOMPSON: It's $200 a ticket. Yeah.

CHOW: Yeah. That's so much money for a 13-year-old.

HARRIS: One other thing I wanted to ask about, talking about the friends - this is also sort of another sort of Pixar Disney thing that has been happening that it's like, it's not really about the boy you like or the girl you like or the whoever you're falling in love with. It has been about friendship...

CHOW: Yeah.

HARRIS: ...Or just non-romantic ties. And I'm curious where you think this fits within this sort of bigger trend that Disney is on.

CHOW: I can't speak to the bigger trend exactly, but one of the plot devices is where Meilin turns into this giant red panda when she's feeling a lot of emotions. But she learns to calm herself down by thinking about her friends. And this doesn't really give much away, but her mother mistakenly believes that Meilin is, you know, calming herself down by thinking about her mother.

(LAUGHTER)

CHOW: And that just nuanced little point, I think, is really wonderful and really smart because it really - you know, it emphasizes the idea that you look outside your family for a found family, for example. And I do think that other Pixar films really also draw on that point, too, and I appreciate that as a trend. And I also appreciate it as a device throughout "Turning Red."

SIRIKUL: Yeah. I agree with that - like, where its friendships are important. And Pixar is catching on to that because I feel like when you think back, it's like, oh, having a partner is everything - you know, someone to love even though I just met the person. And now we are in the generation where it's like, we should love ourselves. We should love our friends. And it's OK to not have a partner. It's OK to not fall in love with someone. You need to love yourself, and you have your friends and your family. That's all you really need.

THOMPSON: Well, especially when the protagonist in question is 13 years old.

HARRIS: Yeah.

CHOW: Yeah.

THOMPSON: Like, what would it even mean if, like, this story was supposed to culminate in some relationship? Like, the ending of this film - it's not giving anything away to say that the ending of this film is a beginning. And I think that's a beautiful touch and something that I've found really, really gratifying in the way animated films in particular have evolved.

HARRIS: Yeah, yeah - so one final thing I wanted to ask you about, which is that Pixar and Disney have been open about their, quote, unquote, "commitment to representation and being inclusive." And so this movie's coming out at a time when Disney is kind of under fire at the moment, in particular Disney CEO Bob Chapek in response to Florida's, quote, unquote, "Don't Say Gay" bill. So this is a bill that was passed by the Florida Senate as of this taping. And Disney, of course, has a ton of business in Florida - their parks, you know, all that. And the bill is similar to the anti-critical race theory stuff, I think, that's been happening where they want to limit how teachers talk about sexuality and gender in schools.

And Disney initially didn't speak out about the bill, claimed the biggest impact the company could have was through their, quote, unquote, "inspiring" content. It's also been reported that Disney's made contributions to legislators who supported the bill. So it's not just about them not saying anything but the fact that they are also financially invested in this in a way. So Chapek came under fire from a number of people, including Disney employees. He then denounced the bill the day after it passed. And Disney is supposedly taking steps, including donating $5 million to organizations that are working to protect LGBTQ+ rights.

So my question is, you know, how do you square this moment where we are having so much onscreen representation in Disney and Pixar with what Disney is doing in real life and, you know, how that reflects on them as a company, if you have any thoughts?

CHOW: I mean, for the most part, Pixar - the overwhelming majority of the films are, you know, directed by men and focus on men or boys. And so for Domee Shi to be the first woman to solo direct a feature film for Pixar, I think, is - you know, that's shameful. And it's not surprising given the political and cultural context around who's leading Disney.

SIRIKUL: Yeah. I feel like Disney only allows what they believe is acceptable, and cultural is acceptable when it comes to, like, women and your background of being, like, Asian American or Latinx. But I think when it gets to the point of where it affects them internationally with LGBTQ issues, I feel like that's when there's a pause for them on that because it does affect them with China and other places that won't allow this type of, like, discussions because with "Turning Red" - yes, it's a story about - with a Chinese Canadian girl. And then it's led by a woman-led team, you know, with the creative team. It's amazing to see that. But it's also like, OK, that meets the criteria of, like, what's acceptable for Disney to be on a broader international scale as well. That's why we get, like, the little wins. For them, they believe that's a win.

CHOW: So incremental.

SIRIKUL: Yeah.

HARRIS: The exclusively gay moment that they had in "Beauty And The Beast," as they called it.

SIRIKUL: Yeah. Like, and everything that's, like, a momentous gay moment for them - and it's like, that's their stop.

THOMPSON: I think the culture at large is moving very quickly. Corporations, especially a corporation the size of Disney - they naturally move very, very slowly. And just the simple process of making a movie - these movies are made over the course of years and years. And in that time, a lot of these conversations shift radically. And so I think you're seeing a corporation kind of trying to steer a barge in a narrow canal. I don't know if I'm getting that metaphor exactly right. But I think that's where some of this clumsiness comes from. I mean, the whole thing where they wouldn't make a statement, and then they made a statement, and then they made a donation, speaks to that corporate timidity and, you know, kind of putting your chips on as many squares on the roulette table as possible so as to offend the fewest number of people. But I also think, in this kind of larger picture, in terms of who's directing these films, you're seeing a slow-moving barge...

HARRIS: Yeah.

THOMPSON: ...Reacting to a rapidly intensifying conversation.

HARRIS: Yeah. I definitely think it just shows a real limitation in what we can expect from corporations just in terms of what they do versus what they say and then also, like, all the points you've made about wanting to satisfy multiple audiences and be the broadest possible, which is not always the path forward, but that's the path that - at least at the time of this recording, that they are taking.

(LAUGHTER)

HARRIS: All right. Well, tell us what you think about "Turning Red." You can find us on Facebook at facebook.com/pchh or tweet us at @pchh. Up next, what's making us happy this week?

Now it's time for our favorite segment of this week and every week, what's making us happy? Laura, let's start with you.

SIRIKUL: Right now, it's BTS...

HARRIS: Yeah.

THOMPSON: (Laughter).

HARRIS: This is appropriate.

CHOW: Wooo (ph).

THOMPSON: Story checks out.

SIRIKUL: ...Which is perfect for this theme of turning red...

HARRIS: Yes.

SIRIKUL: ...'Cause there is a - in 4*Town, there is a Tae Young, and he's Korean. And yeah - so the South Korean group BTS is what's making me happy 'cause they have their Seoul concert this week, and so I'll be watching it, live streaming and in the theater. And then I'll be watching them next month. So I just got tickets.

CHOW: That's so exciting.

SIRIKUL: Yeah. The South Korean group BTS - it's perfect for this theme of "Turning Red," where - the boy bands - 'cause I reflected on that greatly watching that.

(LAUGHTER)

SIRIKUL: So, yes, BTS is making me happy.

HARRIS: Awesome. Thank you, Laura. Kat, how about you?

CHOW: I have two things. What's making me happy is the trailer for "Umma," which is the horror film that Sandra Oh is in - speaking of mothers who are potentially overbearing and potential intergenerational trauma.

HARRIS: Yeah.

CHOW: Wow. I'm really excited for that, and I think it'll be great. I've watched the trailer a bunch of times now. Another thing that's making me happy is my friend Stephanie Foo has a book that recently came out called "What My Bones Know." And I'm not just shouting it out because she is a friend but because it is a really wonderful addition to the dialogue of mental health, especially for Asian Americans. And in the book, she sort of investigates her own personal history of complex PTSD and also weaves in quite a bit of reporting that I think is unique from an immigrant perspective, and I think it's really necessary, especially considering the past few years that we had and what we're experiencing now in the world. And so "What My Bones Know" by Stephanie Foo, that's making me happy - and also "Umma" the movie.

HARRIS: Thank you, Kat. Stephen, how about you?

THOMPSON: What is making me happy this week is the continued leveling up of a podcast that has been near and dear to my heart for longer than I have been at NPR. All Songs Considered, a show that I have been on intermittently for more than 15 years now, has made a bunch of moves this year to expand beyond what it's been doing for years and years. They just launched a best of the month podcast hosted by our pal Lars Gotrich who's now getting to host his own show for the first time after 15 years at NPR.

CHOW: Woo-hoo (ph).

THOMPSON: We love Lars. There's a turning the tables kind of miniseries of panel discussions that is an audio version of this fantastic series that NPR Music has been doing for years, kind of resetting and recentering the rock 'n' roll canon around women. There's a conversation that they just put up on the All Songs feed between two dear, dear friends of the show, Ann Powers and Marissa Lorusso, talking about their shared love of Kate Bush and Yoko Ono. Just seeing this show that I have loved for so long, that I've been a part of for a really, really long time, and seeing them find new ways to center new voices on that show to cover an ever-broader range of music, to give showcases to the many, many gifted voices across NPR music - that expansion is continuing. It is so, so exciting. The new music Friday shows that we do every Friday - I'm on that sometimes. I'm on this week. We've been bringing on new voices for that and kind of re-envisioning that show as a panel discussion instead of this kind of stand and deliver, here are the new albums this week. I just have been really, really excited to see one of the longest-running podcasts in existence continuing to change and shift and grow and level up after all these years. And that is making me so, so happy.

HARRIS: So again, that is All Songs Considered.

THOMPSON: All Songs Considered, baby.

HARRIS: Yeah.

CHOW: Woo-hoo.

(LAUGHTER)

HARRIS: Well, I'm so happy for you, Stephen, and for the whole music team. So what's making me happy this week is - well, it'd be weird to say that it makes me happy 'cause it's about a somewhat serious subject. But it did make me think, and so I feel like it's definitely worth checking out. It's an article from several weeks ago. It's called "Is It Funny For The Jews?" And it's written by Jason Zinoman in The New York Times. And it's this really fascinating essay where he is wrestling with the general idea of being Jewish and dealing with anti-Semitism and horrific things like the Holocaust and just prejudice through comedy and analyzing what it means to sort of, like, brush those things off and make light of it. And he goes through this sort of cultural history of different Jewish comedians like Jackie Mason and what it means to sort of be Jewish in this time of rising anti-Semitism. So it really made me think. I think it's really worth checking out if you haven't already, and that's "Is It Funny For The Jews?" by Jason Zinoman in The New York Times. And that's what's making me happy/think this week.

If you want links for what we recommended plus some more recommendations, subscribe to our newsletter at npr.org/popculturenewsletter. And that brings us to the end of our show. Kat Chow, Laura Sirikul, Stephen Thompson - thanks to you all for being here.

THOMPSON: Thank you.

CHOW: Thank you.

SIRIKUL: Thank you.

HARRIS: This episode was produced by Mike Katzif and Anna Isaacs and edited by Jessica Reedy. Hello Come In provides the music you're bobbing your head to right now. And thank you for listening to POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. I'm Aisha Harris, and we'll see you all next week when we'll be talking about the new series "The Dropout."

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