Review – Puberty, Pimples, And Peculiar Pandas (“Turning Red”)

1985’s Teen Wolf plot has been spun into an eye-candy children’s treat about a vivacious, energetic 13-year-old Chinese-Canadian schoolgirl who has everything going for her. . . until she gets stressed and turns into a giant red panda!

Another Pixar film (distributed by Disney) that is being shown exclusively on the Disney+ streaming service, has several cool things: it’s their first to take place in Canada and the second to feature an Asian lead character since their 2009 film, Up, unless you count their 2018 short, Bao. This story is about Meilin “Mei” Lee (voiced by Rosalie Chiang), a hyper-excited, over-achieving 8th grader, and her three best buddies: brace-wearing Miriam (Ava Morse), militant and excitable Abby (Hyein Park), and perpetually gloomy Priya (Maiteyi Ramakrishnan), who looks a lot like a young Mirabel from Encanto.

Mei lives at home with her über-strict, over-protective mother, Ming Lee (Sandra Oh), and her docile father, Jin Lee (Orion Lee). Together they run a local tourist attraction; an ancient family temple in downtown Toronto, Canada. However, things get crazy after Mei gets unbelievably embarrassed by her mother, triggering a secret family “inconvenience” (okay, it’s really an ancestral curse), turning Mei into a giant 10-ft tall fluffy red panda, but only when she gets emotional. Naturally, hijinks ensue as her parents try to keep a lid on this until they can perform a special ritual to banish the curse.

Meanwhile, the super-hot boy band, 4Town (like NSYNC), are in town and the girls are dead set on seeing them, but tickets are $200 each! What to do? Why, exploit your friend’s new MCU superpowers for profit, of course! Faster than you can say Styles from Teen Wolf, red panda merch is flying around the school as well as Mei’s new popularity. But keeping all of this from Mei’s nosy mom is hard, especially when Ming Lee’s mother (Wa Ching Ho) arrives, who is more critical than her mom! Yikes! With that ceremony coming up, concert tickets hanging in the balance, and Mei trying to control her giant red panda changing ability, will everything turn out okay?

Credit the screenplay to playwright Julia Cho (TV’s Fringe, Big Love) and newbie director Domee Shi (Pixar’s short film, Bao) who, remarkably for both first-timers, have crafted a high-energy, fast-paced, and hilarious kids film that’s filled with wonderful side moments of mother/daughter bonding. The humor is LOL in places with Shi using fast-cuts and quick edits, but not too much to ruin the pacing. The story hits all the beats and, for two first-time screenwriters, is surprisingly top-notch and fun. Yeah, you have a few plot holes and some story thread issues, but the film is aimed at kids and tweens, so they won’t even notice.  

And let’s talk about Pixar’s photo-realistic CGI animation which never wavers. Okay, it’s not Coco, which was eye-popping and blew your mind with all the dazzling colors and CG rendering, but this still has bright vibrant colors and terrific CG animation that, while it won’t make your jaw drop, is still spectacular. It’s a pity it wasn’t released in theaters, I would have liked to have seen this up on the big screen in all its red panda glory! Definitely a must-see!

**Now streaming exclusively on Disney+

Teen Wolf (1985)

In the heart of the crazy 80’s, this goofy teenage movie came out starring Michael J. Fox, the same year as his other little film you might have heard of. . . about a time-traveling DeLorean? Yeah, you might say this guy was his way to film stardom.  

High school is tough enough, but for teenager Scott Howard (Fox), it’s gonna get a whole lot tougher. Sure he’s on the school’s losing basketball team, but he’s also drooling over Pamela Wells (Lorie Griffin), who is without a doubt, the worst stage actress ever. Problem is, Pamela’s dating neanderthal basketballer Mick (Mark Arnold), who delights in bullying Scott on and off the court. Completely oblivious to Scott’s affections is super-cute Boof (Susan Ursitti), his childhood sweetheart. Luckily, he has Stiles (Jerry Levine), his crazy, rascally BFF who is always wearing an array of different sunglasses.

Worse yet, Scott has a deep, dark family secret that suddenly pops up whenever he’s stressed and, now that he’s of age, he starts to grow hair. . . and fangs. . . and, much to his horror, turns into a werewolf! But not to his loving single dad (James Hampton). Apparently, dear ol’ pops knew about this as he’s a werewolf, too! First terrified at his transformations, Stiles sees the potential in his buddy (and the quick money that can be made in merch!), making Scott lean into his new ability.  Scott’s shyness disappears as the ‘Wolf’ becomes the school’s newest sensation, boosting his ego. Pamela even bangs him, even though she’s just using him, leaving poor Boof out in the cold.

But at the high school dance (which looks suspiciously like the one from Michael Jackson’s Thriller), Scott learns a valuable lesson about trust, friendship, and how his massive ego Wolf persona has ruined his life. When the critical basketball game happens, Scott opts to not play as the fearless, unstoppable Wolf, but as his normal self. He not only wins the game with his team, but his self-esteem and Boof as well. Sure, it’s pure schmaltz, but it’s fun schmaltz, carried by Michael J. Fox’s natural charisma and seemingly boundless energy.

Written by prolific comic book writer Jeph Loeb (TV series Heroes and Smallville) and newbie Matthew Weissman, who went on to write for the 2011 Teen Wolf TV series, this was pure 80’s from the high energy direction of Rod Daniel (Home Alone 4: Taking Back the House) to the synthetic keyboard soundtrack! Oh, so very 80’s! This movie was hugely popular in 1985 and spawned a terrible sequel (Teen Wolf Too) in 1987, a children’s Saturday morning animated series, a spin-off called Teen Witch which never happened, and a 2011 TV series. Not too shabby for a quirky, simple, fun-loving one-off movie, huh?

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