Post contains spoilers
Turning Red, a film about a 13-year-old Chinese-Canadian girl Meilin Lee (Rosalie Chiang), is a groundbreaking film on many levels. It’s the first time a woman solo-directed a film in Pixar’s history woman (Domee Shi, who was also the first woman to direct a Pixar short film with Bao). Turning Red is also the second Pixar film to feature an Asian lead character since 2009’s Up (Russell). The cast, too, also features people of Asian descent voicing the characters, a rarity in the film industry. Turning Red provides the long overdue diversity needed today!
Set in Toronto, Ontario, Canada in 2002, Turning Red follows Meilin as she navigates middle school, puberty, and becoming her own person while dealing with the expectations of her loving but overbearing mother, Ming (Sandra Oh) and the need to be “perfect” in her family’s eyes. While navigating the start of her teenage life, she also has to learn how to control her red panda spirit inherited from her ancestors.
From the start, Disney/Pixar’s new film is a nostalgia-filled romp for those of us who were teens (especially teen girls) in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The colors, fashion, Tamagotchi, and boy band references are enough to connect to the 30-and-40-somethings who now have kids in the age-range Turning Red targets. They also serve as a reminder of the now-cringe-but-simpler lives we led before being jaded by adulthood.
Along with the nostalgia trip, we’re introduced to Meilin’s diverse-yet-relatable friend group consisting of Priya (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan), Abby (Hyein Park), Miriam (Ava Morse), and bully-turned-friend Tyler (Tristan Allerick) who each represent someone we all might have been friends with in school. Meilin’s core friend group of Abby, Miriam, and Priya are the types of friends we all wish we could have had in school as they are a source of love and support Meilin needs in her times of trouble. They provide Meilin the encouragement and acceptance she needs to help her find her voice and identity.
Of course, we need to address the red panda in the room as Turning Red is about Meilin’s journey to quell the panda within. While many kids will look at Meilin’s red panda persona as funny and cute, the red panda provides many metaphors throughout the film. First, the red panda symbolizes puberty and growing up. Many adults will see the panda as a symbol of a first menstruation cycle (as noted by Ming coming in the bathroom with a variety of tampons and pads to help Meilin). Meanwhile, the red panda rage Meilin experiences represents teen hormones and mood changes. Taming the human-to-panda changes represents trying to find oneself as well a deeper, more problematic meaning which will be touched on shortly. Younger audiences may miss the symbolism, but teens and adults could see it and relate.
Beneath the cute façade and symbolism, Turning Red also deals with deeper issues of acceptance and generational trauma, much like Disney’s Encanto did months prior. Like Encanto, Turning Red deals with the expectations parents and grandparents place on their children and the need for perfection while the younger generation wants to have room to breathe, thrive, and find themselves on their own terms. In Turning Red, we see Meilin torn between her duties as a good daughter helping her family run their shrine, maintaining good grades, and engaging in academic clubs and activities while also trying to be a typical 13-year-old who wants to hang out with friends, have crushes, and engage in fandom life. The latter part of her identity needs to be hidden away to avoid disappointing her mother. She’s eventually found out, leading to embarrassing results. Throughout the movie, there’s a strong sense that Ming doesn’t want Meilin to grow up to be her own person; instead, Ming wants Meilin to become someone she sculpted to fulfill the impossible desire for perfection. Here, Ming’s expectations mirror the expectations her own mother had for her, leading to the theme of generational trauma and breaking the cycle.
Unfortunately, Turning Red also sends a message that young people should hide and control their emotions. There is a scene early in the movie where Ming and Jin Lee (Meilin’s father) test Meilin to determine if she can control the red panda changes. Throughout the scene, Meilin must contain her emotions to where she’s practically emotionless. While the scene features calming techniques such as Meilin imagining the love of her friends, the whole message can be interpreted to mean that showing any emotion is bad and should be avoided.
Stepping away from the deeper elements of the film, Turning Red does have fun, irrelevant flair.
While it focuses on a Chinese-Canadian family, the movie does a great job including elements from different Asian pop culture scenes. 4*Town and their fandom reflect today’s K-Pop scene (Domee Shi states the influences behind 4*Town include BIGBANG and 2PM) while somewhat fitting into the early 2000s boyband-box (the name 4*Town may make some viewers recall the 2000s’ group O-Town). Similarly, there is a point in the film where Meilin’s family had to perform a ritual while chanting in Cantonese. The musical elements infuse different cultures in interesting ways, adding to the fun!
If you’re a fan of anime, Turning Red provides some anime-esque moments that will be familiar to fans including sexy food shots, “anime glasses,” and Meilin and company’s exaggerated facial expressions. Of course, there is a moment that may look familiar to fans of Sailor Moon that may garner a giggle. The anime allusions aren’t an accident, as Domee Shi admits she is a fan of Japanese anime, especially Sailor Moon and Hayao Miyazaki films. As you watch the film, challenge yourself to find the different references to different East and South Asian cultures as this is a neat extra layer to the movie.
Despite some feeling like Turning Red isn’t relatable beyond the Toronto Asian community, the film is successful in focusing on the struggles of teenage life and finding oneself. At several points, I found myself laughing and saying “that was so me” as Meilin and her friends navigated the world around them. From hiding boyband-love to random “sexy” sketches in a notebook to even hiding bad grades to not disappoint my family, almost every moment in Turning Red has something I and most teenagers have done. Ideally, these moments should serve as a bonding moment and talking points between parents and kids, especially when it is revealed Ming had similar experiences as a child.
Even the adults have relatable moments. For me, Meilin’s parents had shades of my own family with her dad being a supportive, quiet being while her mom being a force that can either build you up or tear you down depending on the situation. Like Meilin, the moment of sheer terror as her mother flipped threw her notebook to find questionable things and Ming flipping out reminded me of a similar instance I had in high school with my own mom. The anger and embarrassment I felt then came flooding back in this scene. Additionally, Ming’s questioning of 4*Town and why the group’s named 4*Town is something many parents may do. Kudos to Domee Shi and the writers for fleshing out the parents enough to make them feel realistic!
Meilin’s explosive tendencies toward her mother are also relatable although somewhat unrealistic. Meilin grows bold about sharing her feeling and lashing out against her mother as the film unfolds. While many teens may have moments of talking back to a parent, the speeches and clarity between exchanges is a dream for many as back-and-forth conversations can sometimes be volatile and unproductive, which isn’t always the case for Meilin. Of course, in the beginning, Ming dominated the conversations, but the dynamic shifted toward the end. Perhaps the messaging here is parents should not argue and listen to their children’s needs, but the message may be an unrealistic expectation for many children. This also brings up other issues that make Turning Red an imperfect film.
The acceptance Meilin experienced during her red panda change was too positive. Realistically, people might be judgmental with some resorting to bullying and ostracization if a fellow classmate went through an extreme change (naturally, we’re not talking about being a red panda!). Everyone seemingly accepted Meilin’s red panda persona and treated her better than before she was a panda. The only exception is Tyler who bullied her pre-panda but then used Meilin for his own gain until she lashed out against him. Some added nuances regarding some negative experiences would have added more depth to Meilin’s growing pains, especially in contrast to the conflicts she faces at home.
While the story and content are relatable, the movie feels frantic sometimes. The frenzied narrative Meilin starts the story with does create an issue with trying to connect to her, but as she learns to control herself and finds some inner peace, she does become less polarizing. The fast action and communication style can draw children in effectively. For older individuals, the pacing may be a turn-off and impact the overall likeability.
[Spoiler alert] Along with the above, the climax of the movie also made me laugh, but not in a good way. Without giving anything way, Meilin makes a choice that was expected throughout the movie, leading to a cheesy moment where she acts on the decision (here is where you see the Sailor Moon/magical girl references). This decision leads to a battle and destruction that caused an audible “what the f…” to escape with my awkward laughter. The moment here is cringey, but it does fit in with the overall scope of a movie that embraces awkwardness.
Turning Red is not without its flaws, but it’s a cute film sure to delight audiences. For some audiences, they will relate to the theme of growing up. For others, the fun-filled nostalgia trip might trigger some strong emotions of what it was like to grow up in simpler times and what it was like to grow up in a strict family.
Turning Red earns a respectable 3.5/5.
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