Turning Red, a new animated coming-of-age story from Pixar Studios, gives us confident, ambitious, and dorky 13-year-old Mei Lee (Rosalie Chiang) who, when experiencing severe emotions, turns into a giant red panda. This was an old family secret she knew nothing about until going through puberty.
Yes, puberty and periods. Pixar tackles this somewhat awkward stage and turns it into a time to be celebrated. Mei is going through changes in her life, personally, emotionally, and physically, as middle schoolers do, and as she deals with these changes, the panda allows Mei to express these emotions. Because if you’ve been a middle schooler or parented one, you know it’s brutal out there.
The female-led team of Director Domee Shi, producer Lindsey Collins, and writer Julia Cho, captures the essence of being a teenage girl perfectly, not afraid to bring uncomfortable conversations and topics into the film. Mei has a complicated relationship with her mother, Ming (Sandra Oh). She loves her dearly, but she doesn’t want to disappoint her. Ming can be described as a Tiger Mom, fiercely protective and loving with high expectations, but also reluctant to have Mei grow up, wanting to shield her from boys, concerts, and even friends who encourage her to stray from Ming’s vision for Mei.
Until this point, Mei has been okay with that. She’s been the overachieving, obedient daughter, but now she wants some freedom. Freedom from these strict expectations. The one thing that can make a girl disobey her parents? Boy band love! The one true love of her girl gang is 4*Town, a boy band with 5 members. So why is their name 4*Town, she asks? Who cares?!
Now that puberty and hormones have stricken, we have a boy-crazy Mei. When Mei turns into a giant red panda for the first time when she gets her period, it’s not only a metaphor for puberty, but “also what we inherit from our moms, and how we deal with the things that we inherit from them” according to Shi. Mei wants to hide from the world and her parents. That is until her parents tell her, well it actually runs in the family. Whenever Mei feels any strong emotion, it triggers the panda.
She learns that when she can calm down and control these emotions, she turns back into Mei, and that is mostly through the love and support of her girl gang. Her best friends include Miriam (Ava Morse), a fun-loving party animal, Abby (Hyein Park), a ball of energy who can sometimes be too much, and Priya (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan), sarcastic and full of dry humor.
Turning Red is breaking stereotypes of catty and petty females. This female friend group is supportive of each other, fun-loving, goofy, intelligent, and age-appropriate. This is the girl gang we want and need. They encourage her while Mei figures out who she is, but they also know when to reign her in.
Desperate to try to earn money for the 4*Town concert coming to town, Mei uses her new Panda fame to earn enough for all four of them to attend. And they have fun doing it.
The chunky, cute style of anime and animation help blend the eastern and western cultures the movie depicts. Characters with big, expressive eyes, and vibrant colors advocate the more dramatic elements of a teenager’s life in the film.
Just as Encanto helped heal generational trauma, Turning Red will help those struggling with their mother-daughter relationships.
When Ming hides behind a tree at school and waves pads in the air just in case Mei forgot hers, that’s her love language – taking care of Mei. And although Mei may just die of embarrassment, she can also recognize that it is an act of love. Ming has had struggles with her own mom and has to address that damaged relationship, too.
Pixar has always excelled at tugging at the heartstrings, and Turning Red is no exception while adding a lot of humor and introducing audiences to cultural specificities and different love languages. Y’all better get ready for those Aunties rolling into town when a crisis hits.
Can we also talk about that boy band vibe? While this may be for children born after me, the 2000s era of boy band frenzy is alive and well in my heart. Even though I was in college, the battle of Backstreet Boys versus *NSYNC is seared in my memory. Choose a side, people. Plus, the original music created for 4*Town are bops.
Not everyone will appreciate this style of film; some may not be able to relate. And things definitely get weird. But Domee Shi unapologetically honors the tough times in our lives. Mei is imperfect; she makes mistakes, and her friends and family forgive her. However, the way she honestly lives once she figures it out makes her a role model for young girls.
As a mom of 5 girls, we’ve had disagreements galore, and this film hit differently. I’ve struggled with the balance of watching them grow and create their own paths while learning ways to remain close through our differences, just as Mei and her mother do.
There’s a lot going on in Turning Red and at times, it can be chaotic, but it’s a fantastic view of adolescence. Some themes may not be new, but they are shared through a fresh and personal lens. Turning Red is a messy and authentic story that doesn’t hesitate to break cycles (or talk about them) and tropes. Let’s hear it for the girls.
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This post was produced and syndicated by Wealth of Geeks.
Image Credit: Walt Disney Studios.
Tania Lamb is an entertainment and travel writer and owner of LolaLambchops.com. She is a Rotten Tomatoes approved critic and a huge Marvel and Star Wars fangirl. Also a snack enthusiast, it's hard for her to resist the smell of popcorn at the movie theater, no matter how hard she tries.