Released to Disney+ on March 11, “Turning Red” took the world by storm. Directed by Domee Shi, the movie follows 13-year-old Meilin “Mei” Lee (Rosalie Chiang) after she wakes and discovers that when she experiences strong emotions, she transforms into a giant red panda, a respected guardian animal in her family’s history. This generational curse and blessing is passed down to every daughter when they come of age; however, it can be permanently trapped in a talisman with a ritual performed during a Red Moon. As Mei struggles to control her new and changing body, she is forced to confront her relationship with herself, her friends and most importantly, her mother.
“Turning Red” is a relatable, heartwarming and all-around enjoyable film that pushes the boundaries of mainstream coming-of-age stories by engaging its viewers in the otherwise difficult conversations of cultural and familial bonds, female adolescence, generational trauma and self-acceptance. Simultaneously hilarious and heartfelt, this tale navigates the complex and messy reality of growing up and becoming one’s true self. “Turning Red” tackles important and underrepresented themes in a way that is fresh and fun, while defying expectations about what many believe an animated movie should be.
Set in the early 2000s, “Turning Red” is filled with familiar references like Tamagotchi digital pet toys, teen celebrity magazines and heart-throbbing boy bands. Mei, like any 13-year-old, is busy fangirling over celebrity crushes, jamming out with her best friends and secretly rebelling against her overprotective mother. For Mei and her friends, attending a 4*TOWN concert is life or death, and apparently, the first step into “womanhood.” The adorable exchanges between Mei and her friends remind me all too well of those between myself and my friends. The undying urge to “grow up” is universally felt and is wonderfully depicted in the film, but with keen attention to how Chinese cultural values play into Mei’s experiences.
The movie reflects the ethnic and racial diversity of its setting, Toronto, and does its environment justice by filling scenes with nods to the vibrant culture and local community of Toronto’s Chinatown, home to one of the largest Cantonese-speaking immigrant enclaves in Canada. From the local temple brimming with incense to close-up shots of Mei’s dad’s mouth-watering cooking, I felt a warm connection to my culture and heritage — for which good representation is often scarce.
What makes Mei such a lovable and memorable protagonist is her fantastically written character arc. “Turning Red” opens with photographs featuring Mei and her mother, Ming (Sandra Oh). They do everything together, demonstrating their unbreakable mother-daughter bond. Mei narrates the opening scene with a phrase that cuts deep: “The number one rule in my family? Honor. Your. Parents… Of course, some people are like, be careful. Honoring your parents sounds great, but if you take it too far, well, you might forget to honor yourself.”
When we first meet Mei, she presents herself as a confident, boisterous and strong-willed girl. Mei is the picture-perfect overachieving Asian daughter and her mother’s pride and joy, but we quickly learn that Mei is not as independent as she convinces herself she is. From turning down opportunities to hang out with her friends to hiding her discontent when her mother humiliates her, Mei caters to Ming’s happiness and expectations rather than her own.
As Mei learns to control her panda transformation — an overt metaphor for puberty — she finds that her growing desire to live her life more truthfully is often at odds with her mother’s wishes. Torn between living out loud with her friends and maintaining her dutiful relationship with her mother, Mei reveals a deeper side to her character. Mei goes from initially rejecting her red panda form to embracing it as her source of freedom, adventure and self-expression, much to her mother’s disapproval. On the night of the Red Moon, Ming stresses that Mei cannot fail the ritual if she wishes to live a normal life. Although she initially agrees, Mei changes her mind and decides to keep her panda form, openly disobeying her mother.
Having broken her own talisman, an enraged Ming transforms into her gigantic red panda form. Mei must fight her mother as Mei’s two identities fall into conflict: her dutiful loyalty to her family and her love for her friends. Mei knocks her mother into an unconscious state, giving her time to seal away Ming’s enormous panda. During her mother’s Red Moon ritual, Mei enters the astral plane, where she finds a teenage Ming sobbing uncontrollably. Ming tearfully reveals that she had hurt her own mother after lashing out in anger, damaging their relationship for years. Crying, Ming proclaims, “I’m just so sick of being perfect. I’m never gonna be good enough for her, or anyone.”
This painful scene not only facilitates a much-needed moment of healing and understanding between Mei and Ming, but offers an honest and raw depiction about the reality of generational trauma that is especially prominent within families of color. The red panda curse/blessing also symbolizes how family wounds and generational pains, despite their best efforts to stay sealed away, are often hereditary as well. By choosing to keep her panda, Mei becomes the first to break this traumatic cycle of crippling perfection amongst the women in her family.
“Turning Red” is revolutionary in small ways. It is the first Pixar film solely directed by a woman and the second to feature an Asian lead character. The women in “Turning Red” are lovely and refreshing examples of well-written female characters that push against stereotypical and one-dimensional representations. Cutesy and filled to the brim with bright colors, the film’s art style does not detract from its legitimacy. Rather, it proves that “girliness” is neither childish nor degrading. “Girly” is a valid and powerful style of storytelling.
Furthermore, the film’s commitment to incorporating Mei’s Chinese identity into her story not only makes faces like mine more visible to mainstream America, but validates our right to exist, to take up space and to tell our stories.
“Turning Red” is not your average coming-of-age story, and it shouldn’t be. It doesn’t shy away from honest depictions of puberty and trauma; instead, it pushes forward uplifting representations of teenage girls and our often flawed but amazing mothers. I laud Domee Shi and the incredible women of color that gave this story life, for they open doors and show us the kind of art that can be produced when women of color are put behind the camera and the script. To Asian-American girls, “Turning Red” is not afraid to be big and bold, and neither should you. Red, after all, is a lucky color.