(This review was originally published in March 2022. )
Growing up, my fictional resources featuring girls dealing with puberty and growing up, consisted solely of Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret…a book published in 1970. Needless to say, I couldn’t really identify with the main character or her experiences as a 13-year old in 2008.
I wasn’t into dramas like Degrassi…so there wasn’t really any media that gave me a character going through the same struggles I was. Sure, my mother and American Girl’s The Care and Keeping of You (as well as their A Smart Girl’s Guide series) were there…but those didn’t really prepare me for just how awkward, hormonal, and uncomfortable puberty was going to be.
Pixar’s Turning Red is exactly the movie I needed growing up.
It’s a film that has been sorely needed by many people for a very long time. While part of me is sad that it took 24 movies before Pixar had its first fully female-directed film – the fact that the first one is so ground-breaking in many ways gives me hope for this new era of animated films.
Thirteen-year-old Meilin Lee lives with her parents in 2002 Toronto. She goes to school; obsesses over boy bands with her friends, helps in her family’s temple dedicated to red pandas. She struggles with her strict mom but overall is pretty happy.
That is until she wakes up one morning and discovers that thanks to a generations-old “curse” the women in her family turn into giant red pandas when experiencing strong emotions. With a month until her family can undo the curse, Meilin decides to use her gift to get tickets to her favorite boyband’s concert, despite her mother’s warnings.
The film itself is a celebration of girlhood, growing up, and discovering who you are for the first time.
Periods, Pads, Puberty and Red Pandas, Oh My….
Let’s get it out of the way: the movie is a metaphor for puberty. When Mei first wakes as a red panda, her mom actually assumes she’s gotten her first period and loads her daughter up with aspirin, pads, and herbal tea before school.
It’s the first time, I’ve seen periods mentioned at all in a family film – and while they don’t mention what a period is ~ it’s a huge step forward. It’s not clear if Mei actually got her period too – but that’s unimportant.
What really makes the analogy work, as is that – Mei’s mother, Ming, hadn’t mentioned the whole red panda thing yet, because she thought she had more time – the same way many moms don’t talk about periods with their daughters until they actually get them.
Ming long ago “overcame” the panda, as did the aunties of the family. They don’t change any more. But the fact that the panda transformation is limited to the female members of the family (for reasons explained in the film) makes Turning Red a celebration of femininity and figuring out how to balance family traditions with who you are.
Much like Inside Out – the film is about growing up and dealing with emotions. But Riley wasn’t really the main character in that film: Joy and Sadness were the protagonists. And Riley could have been a boy, and very little about the movie would have changed.
Turning Red is so specifically about girlhood, (cis) girl puberty and all those highs and lows – that you literally cannot change that aspect of the movie. It is not afraid to hide who it’s for.
I cannot stop singing the praises of Turning Red. Every technical aspect is absolutely amazing. I love the subtle use of color in the characters’ outfits; it showed us that Mei was always going to embrace her inner panda. (Her mom and aunties all wear green; the opposite of red on the color wheel.)
I like the background art and designs. I can’t say much about it other than the fact, that I thought the movie was gorgeous and cartoony at the same time. I thought it worked well with the premise.
I also love the cartoony, over-the-top expressions and movements, as well as the diversity in character designs.
Mei and her friends look and act like real middle school girls.
They act big. They move big. They’re allowed to take up a lot of space. Which doesn’t always happen with female characters.
They’re allowed to have so many different emotions, including yes, horniness and lust. I’ve never seen a movie that has let teen girls express their sexuality so openly and positively. Boys have been allowed to have copies of Playboy and peep at girls in the locker room – but this is the first time I’ve seen girls allowed to do the same thing.
Believe me – I remember those hormones. I definitely had the same feelings. It’s not shown as anything abnormal or to be ashamed of.
There’s a lot that can be said about the representation of a Chinese-Canadian family in this film, but I’ll let those more qualified than me discuss that aspect. But the Chinese cultural influence can be found in multiple aspects of Mei’s life, and she’s never shown to be ashamed or embarrassed by it.
Her relationship with her friends is shown as nothing less than supportive and wholesome; they’re there to support her through thick and thin. I’m glad the Plot Mandated Friendship Failure moment wasn’t a big deal in the end. Those moments in movies get a little exhausting.
And while the film is mainly about her relationship with her mom; the movie also explores her relationship with her dad. While many fathers in these kinds of coming-of-age films are either absent, complete oafs, or uncomfortable with their daughters’ changing bodies – Turning Red gives us a quiet but caring father who ends up being the one who lets Mei know that everything is going to be okay and that there’s nothing wrong with her.
There’s a lot I want to say I need to rewatch the movie first.
I just adore the way Turning Red lets teen girls actually be teen girls. It doesn’t hide who they are – they’re allowed to dance, fangirl over boybands, act goofy, mildly curse…And though at times, I wish this film had really been allowed to go all out and have a PG-13 rating, it’s really important for young girls to have access to Turning Red.
Like many current Disney animated films Turning Red shows parents as flawed people. They make mistakes and don’t always do the right thing…however, they often get forgiven without an apology.
I really wish the parents in these films do have to apologize – rather than having the parents forgiven because…well, they’re the parents. But it also seems like the parental relationships in this film have a dynamic based in the Asian diaspora that I won’t truly ever understand.
I do think the whole “intergenerational trauma” story is getting a little played out – but each film that has done this (Encanto, Coco, and arguably The Mitchells vs. The Machines) has done it so differently that I don’t really care.
Also, I am slightly disappointed that the film didn’t end up with a few of the titles that were pitched for it, according to the documentary. My favorites were: The Notorious R.P.G. (Red Panda Girl) and P.M.S. (Panda Mayhem Syndrome). I understand why they didn’t go with those titles, but that would have been amazing.
The scene at the beginning of the movie with Mei’s mom accusing the teenage convenience store clerk of being a pedophile drug dealer (and that’s barely paraphrasing) in front of a store full of people – (after finding Mei’s doodles of them kissing) was the most second-hand embarrassment I’ve had while watching a movie in a long time. I am convinced this happened to somebody on the crew because it is too specific NOT to have happened.
But the scene only seems to exist to show how overbearing and overprotective her mother is – as this never gets mentioned again. And holy shit – you would think they would talk about this or something. I’d personally never forgive my mom if she had done something like that.
It just kind of goes untalked about – despite Mei probably will never show her face in that store again.
It’s just a part of the movie that baffled me. It didn’t ruin the movie though.
This film is NOT going to appeal to everyone. And I think that’s a good thing. We have so many coming-of-age films (usually featuring white boys) that are meant to speak to a “universal audience” that one featuring an awkward Asian girl is a breath of fresh air. The specificity of the film made it feel all the more real.
I really enjoyed this film. It didn’t feel like the previous Pixar films I’ve felt lukewarm towards, as I felt they were trying to replicate past Pixar films’ formula without really understanding it. While Turning Red doesn’t have that sad, poignant Pixar moment and doesn’t quite feel like a Pixar film — I’m really happy with it.
There’s a lot more I want to say – but I can’t quite figure out how to express yet. I hope the success of this film will lead towards an even more diverse and personal field of stories being told.
I’ll definitely be watching it again.
And that’s the scoop!!
Release Year: 2022
Length: 100 Minutes
Director: Domee Shi
Screenplay: Domee Shi, Julia Cho, Sarah Streicher
Producer: Lindsey Collins