Monday, July 15, 2024

Movie Review: Turning Red

by Emmarie May Bonganciso | April 11, 2022

If there is anything Disney and Pixar are famous for, it’s heartwarming and meaningful stories that have become family favorites for decades. Whether it’s about a widowed old man tying thousands of balloons to his house or a family in Colombia with extraordinary gifts, Disney and Pixar have become beloved parts of the childhood of millions around the world. This year, they have released yet another film. This time, coming from an all-female creative leadership team.

“Turning Red” introduces audiences to Mei Lee, a thirteen-year-old dutiful daughter, faithful friend, and stellar student living in Toronto, Canada in the year 2002. Her life is turned upside down when a family gift makes her change into a giant red panda whenever she gets too excited or emotional. This idea comes from Academy Award-winning director Domee Shi. “It’s a coming-of-age story,” Shi says in an interview with Disney. “It’s about a girl learning how to grow up and navigate changes to her body and changes to her relationships with her mother and her friends.” The only way she can turn human again “is to take deep breaths, calm herself down, and control her emotions.”


It’s always a joy to watch an animated movie that showcases a diverse set of cultures and ethnicities. Mei Lee’s Chinese roots are particularly highlighted and play an important role in the story. We see glimpses of how they managed the temple for their ancestors, their values and principles, and even the amazing food they cook. What makes this exciting for people, especially us Asians, is that we can finally see ourselves in the life of these characters. Although we may not all fully relate to some of the cultural references brought up, we understand that they are much more closely tied to our heritage compared to some of the Western cultures. Featuring different cultures and building from that makes the film a lot more refreshing and unique for the audience. We’ve seen that done in films such as Coco and Encanto where the setting of the story provides a richer, more distinct appeal to the overall story due to the underlying culture. 

Another impressive thing in this film was the depth of the characters. The depiction of Mei Lee’s friends was so realistic. Their personalities — the emo friend, the loud, hyperactive friend, the cool, boyish friend — were all personalities that I saw in the people I knew from high school. I loved how watching this movie brought me back to my high school years, the awkwardness, the innocence, and the youthful zeal in thinking the world was what we make of it. It was amusing to hear Mei Lee say in all seriousness and determination, “This is grade eight. I ain’t got time to fool around.” because it reminded me so much of myself. I saw myself in the way Mei Lee wanted to carve out a perfect life as early as that age and act like a grown-up who’s got it all figured out. 

The authenticity shown in these characters even in revealing the aspect of romantic fantasies and attraction that often begin at their age is to be highly appreciated. It’s still tough to be thirteen, an age when everything seems to rapidly change and you have to learn how to adapt to such changes. I deeply appreciate how the writers didn’t shy away from giving these characters that element of awkwardness and cringe. It made all the difference. 

“Did the Red Peony Bloom?” 

Speaking of awkwardness, do any of you girls out there remember the first time you got your period? I bet we all have our fair share of embarrassing stories we’d rather not try to recall. In the part of the movie when Mei Lee is freaking out in the bathroom because she just found out that she’s a giant red panda, her mother is on the other side of the door worriedly asking, “Did the Red Peony bloom?”, a euphemism for getting her period. I think this would be the first time that a Disney or Pixar film has ever addressed women’s periods! Ming, Mei’s mother, even went all the way to prepare ibuprofen, heating pads, herbal tea, and a wide selection of — you guessed it — pads. Despite the comedic nature of that scene as Mei was obviously not having her period but was experiencing a way bigger problem than that, it was good to see animated coming-of-age films starting to normalize talking about what a girl experiences as she transitions into womanhood. 

Generational Trauma 

Generational trauma is exactly what it sounds like. It’s trauma not only experienced by one person but extends from one generation to the next. In Turning Red, we eventually find out that Ming was just like Mei when she was her age, struggling with the pressure to be the perfect, obedient daughter for her mother. In the astral realm, Mei meets a younger version of Ming crying alone after hurting her own mother during a heated fight. Suddenly, we’re not looking at Ming as the no-nonsense, stern parent but as a vulnerable young girl. She also deeply struggled. From this, we can see that Ming’s tight grip on her daughter to shelter her was in her perspective, how she could best love Mei. She lacked the security and assurance from her own mother. She sheltered Mei so much so she wouldn’t have any bad influences that could lead Mei to become more like herself, especially as she silently anticipated the Panda phenomenon. 

The overarching theme of making room for the messy parts of ourselves was delivered strongly in the film through its relatable yet flawed characters, realistic friendship and family tropes, and vibrant animation. As Mei’s reserved yet supportive father once said, “People have all kinds of sides to them, Mei. Some sides are messy. The point isn’t to push the bad stuff away, it’s to make room for it, live with it.” As Mei learned to break the mold and embrace this new, spunky side of her brought about by her friends and the changing times, a stronger bond of trust was formed with her mother. This time it wasn’t suffocating or forced, it was a bond that allowed for both of them to grow on their own and yet, together. After all, we all have that loud, messy, weird part of ourselves hidden away. And most of us have never let it out. But Mei did. So how about you? 


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