** Warning: contains some spoilers for “Turning Red.”**
Pixar’s Turning Red, directed by Domee Shi, was released on Disney+ on March 11, 2022, and it has had mixed reviews. The film follows 13-year-old Mei Lee, who has to navigate becoming a more independent adolescent while still being obedient to her overprotective mother. In less than two hours, Shi manages to explore themes of generational trauma, the relationship between mothers and daughters and what growing up means within the family dynamic. The opening scene introduces Mei as a confident, spunky, and strong-willed girl who not only fulfills her parents’ desire for her to be a successful student but also is coming of age and discovering her own passions
Set in Toronto, Canada, Turning Red stars Rosalie Chaing as Mei in an animated comedy that is on the surface about a girl who turns into a giant red panda when her emotions get out of control; however, there are layers of metaphors and euphemisms that tell a deeper story.
Breaking away from the common storytelling style, Mei narrates and interjects in her own story, breaking the fourth wall and making the film more fun and lively. After Mei takes us through a normal day in her life, we see she is not as independent as she has convinced herself she is. She is an overachiever, her mother’s “precious little Mei Mei,” and is constantly seeking her mothers happiness rather than her own.
After the dramatic overnight transformation into a giant red panda, Mei is embarrassed, confused and angry. Upon discovering the transformation is not singular to her, she freaks out even more. Her mother, aunts and grandmother all share the lineage of becoming a red panda, as one of their ancient ancestors asked to be transformed into a panda to protect her village. However negative the consequences and extreme the mischief seems, Mei learns to control her emotions and embrace her panda form. We all have experience trying new things and figuring out how to control our emotions — the transformation into an animal represents the changes adolescents go through and familial acceptance.
Instead of falling into the “Mean Girls” trope, Mei’s diverse friend group helps show the importance of having female friends who uplift each other. Throughout the movie, they are always there to protect and help her through her transformation. Priya is a goth nerd who is humorous and always carries a monotone voice with everything she says. Miriam is loyal and a total goof, and Abby is a fearless stick of dynamite who always stands up for her friends. These kids are definitely not the cool kids, which is what I most related to. I loved going to school and doing homework – yep, I was that kid. The positive representation reaffirms the *insert cheesy quote* power of friendship.
Not to mention, Turning Red is a milestone at Pixar animation studios as it is the first film to be solely directed by a woman and have an all-female team, the first to ever have discussion on menstruation and talk about pads, as well as Pixar’s first film centering around Asian-Americans. Shi wanted to address the messiness of being a teen girl and that definitely includes emotions, which she said is partially based on Riley in Inside Out. However, she found her inspiration for Mei based on her own life as a Chinese girl growing up in Canada, as well as the experiences of her peers.
While Shi’s film has mostly had positive reviews, there has been controversy from parents saying that Mei and her friends listening to a boy band plays into stereotypes about teens and pre-teen girls. They’ve also criticized the discussion of Mei’s menstruation as being too mature. Media representation, especially in Hollywood, tends to chracterize women and girls as being too emotional, and the natural cycle of menstruation is often seen as disgusting or gross. Shi decides to change this narrative while simply bringing awareness to it, rather than making it invisible or negative.
Despite some people being turned off by the acknowledgment of the cringey side of puberty, the film is created for everyone, not just Asian-Americans, young people ,or girls. Shi especially addresses the importance of parents having conversations with young daughters as well as sons about menstruation and puberty in general. The film addresses the essence of embarrassing moments we all experience at the ages of 11-14. Growing up is a beast, which the film shows with the panda. It portrays adolescence, maybe not perfectly, but authentically. Turning Red is as fun, charming ,and nerdy as Mei, but serves as a reminder for us all to accept our panda — or our awkwardness — and truly be ourselves.