At The Movies: In Turning Red, a girl transforms into a giant red panda

Still from the animated film Turning Red. PHOTO: THE WALT DISNEY COMPANY

Animated comedy

Turning Red (PG)

90 minutes, available on Disney+ from March 11, 4 stars

Teenage coming-of-age stories do not come much sweeter, or honour girlhood more, than this animated feature from Pixar.

In this tale of Mei Lee, a teen cursed - or perhaps blessed - with shape-shifting powers, the girls are never catty, nor do they form cliques. Their support for one another is unstinting.

Chinese-Canadian director and co-writer Domee Shi understands that while the teens might be boy-crazy, their crushes are confined to the realm of fantasy.

The real boy himself is irrelevant; what is more important is the rich romantic lore they spin around the floppy-haired, baby-faced objects of their desire.

Mei Lee (voiced by Rosalie Chiang) is a 13-year-old high achiever and the pride of her Chinese immigrant parents. In the Toronto of the early 2000s, Mei - with friends Miriam (Ava Morse), Abby (Hyein Park) and Priya (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan, star of Netflix comedy Never Have I Ever, 2020 to present) - do karaoke and dream about the boy band 4*Town.

Mei's mother Ming (Korean-Canadian actress Sandra Oh) is no tiger mum. She expects her daughter to make the right choices, but never pressures her to succeed.

Most of all, Ming just wants to keep Mei safe. That drive becomes so intrusive that it makes the girl the butt of school jokes. The shame Mei feels triggers a violent change in her body, magically transforming her into a giant red panda.

Her shape-changing can be understood as a metaphor for puberty (there is a joke in which a concerned Ming asks Mei if her "peony is blossoming" or some such poetic phrase) or as the embodiment of teen shame and frustration.

Shi, however, is smart enough to avoid addressing themes head-on through, say, heartfelt mother-daughter dialogue. Everything is grounded in a visually delightful, anime-inspired adventure that takes its inspiration from "let's put on a show and save the soda shop" teen musicals.

While this is not a musical, music is taken seriously - the snippets of pop heard when 4*Town is mentioned are original compositions, but feel like they time-travelled from 1990s radio.

Romantic musical

Cyrano (PG13)

124 minutes, opens on March 10, 3 stars

Still from the film Cyrano starring Peter Dinklage, Haley Bennett and Kelvin Harrison Jr. PHOTO: UIP

British film-maker Joe Wright has a knack for the emotionally charged setpiece.

Darkest Hour, the 2017 biopic of former British prime minister Winston Churchill, could be said to be a movie-length music video about oratory as a weapon of war. In action thriller Hanna (2011), Wright's love of musical theatre expresses itself in a couple of scenes, such as when Tom Hollander's assassin character Isaacs - whistling and strutting with a walking stick - holds a family hostage inside artfully arranged shipping containers.

This movie - one of many screen adaptations of the 1897 French play Cyrano de Bergerac - takes as its main source the 2018 stage musical of the same name. Wright's version preserves the songs, but in moving it from stage to screen, momentum is lost.

While it lapses into sentimental repetition after the first hour - there is only so much pining for the beautiful Roxanne that the audience can take before it gets tiresome - Wright's eye for the perfect setpiece never leaves him.

Roxanne (Haley Bennett) is an orphan matched with the rich but detestable Duke De Guiche (Australian actor Ben Mendelsohn in full purring villain mode). A handsome soldier, Christian (Kelvin Harrison Jr) tries to woo Roxanne, but is far too prosaic in speech for the poetry-loving orphan.

His comrade-in-arms Cyrano (Peter Dinklage), a man who has long harboured a secret love for Roxanne, agrees to ghost-write Christian's love letters.

The film's Oscar nomination for Best Costume Design is well deserved: The 18th-century look that Wright's team achieves in wardrobe and set design is romantic yet thoroughly original.

It deserves snappier editing and a screenplay to match.

Animated docudrama

Flee (M18)

89 minutes, opens on March 10 exclusively at The Projector, 4 stars

Still from the animated docudrama Flee. PHOTO: THE PROJECTOR/FINAL CUT FOR REAL

The raucous support the West has given to those leaving Ukraine must make veterans working in refugee aid organisations jealous. For decades, they have been helping people fleeing war zones in the Middle East, Asia and Africa and would probably appreciate a viral Internet trend or two in support.

Among those doing their bit for the overlooked is Danish documentary maker Jonas Poher Rasmussen. Flee has earned a nod in the Oscars' Best International Feature Film category.

Rasmussen interviews a refugee living in Denmark, who goes by the pseudonym Amin Nawabi to protect his identity.

Amin's narration is given life in animated format, aided by archival footage of events he describes occurring in Afghanistan in the 1980s and 1990s.

In recollections that are as harrowing as they are wry, Amin describes how, as a boy, his attraction to the men of Bollywood is deeper than can be explained by his admiration for their fighting skills, as well as his family's dangerous and miserable journey to Europe.

Awful secrets are spilled about the moral compromises Amin and his family have made to secure their survival.

The animation is plain, with some segments looking like a podcast spiced up with Powerpoint slides. The deliberate comic-book rawness of the visuals makes other animated docudramas, such as the Israeli war memoir Waltz With Bashir (2008), look positively luxurious.

Luckily, Amin's account - told in a low-key, unsentimental manner but filled with edge-of-the-seat twists - makes up for the lack of visual interest.

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