Puberty and Pandas: Pixar’s ‘Turning Red’ 

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On March 11, Disney released “Turning Red” on their streaming service, Disney+. The animated movie was produced by Pixar Studios and directed by Chinese-Canadian animator Domee Shi, who is best known for Pixar short “Bao.” Voiced by Rosalie Chiang, the film follows Mei Lee: a 13-year old girl struggling with navigating her developing adolescence and the watchful eye of her all-too-protective mother. As if these challenges aren’t stressful enough, whenever Mei Lee experiences strong emotions, she transforms into a giant red panda.  

Pixar films like “Up” and “Inside Out” are known for the gut-wrenching emotions they induce with the bright colors of their animation. While the story of “Turning Red” isn’t as emotionally taxing as Pixar’s previous releases, the movie showcases something that many can still relate to — the utter awkwardness of transitioning from childhood to teenager. Mei Lee’s persona and life depict what many growing children have faced. She is socially awkward, takes pride in being weird and nerdy, loves math, plays the flute and is a total bookworm. 

Mei Lee is also thick as thieves with her best friends Miriam, Priya and Abby. Set in 2002, the girls make friend bracelets, fawn over their unrequited crushes and obsess over their one true love — the boyband 4*TOWN. They spend hours listening to the band’s music, filling out quizzes in teen magazines and consuming every piece of media related to the band. This was a fun piece of the story to see, since many people who watch the film may recall their days of obsessing over bands like NSYNC or One Direction. In an interview with Thrillist, Shi spoke about the inclusion of boy band mania in her film. 

“In the very first version of the movie, we had this scene between Mei and Ming, her mom, where Ming is not understanding her daughter,” Shi said in an interview with Thrillist about the inclusion of boy band mania in “Turning Red.” “She’s saying, ‘Why do they call it 4*TOWN if there’s five of them?’ And it was such a funny joke that justified us keeping the boy band in the movie, but then their role got bigger and bigger, and then it just made sense to have Mei’s goal for the movie to get to the 4*TOWN concert. That 4*TOWN would be the stakes of the movie just felt so 13, and we were so excited by the idea to make our own boy band.”  

I found the movie to perfectly reflect my own youth. I too was once that same odd child playing the clarinet in the school band, obsessing over boys and plagued by my own braces. The movie perfectly encapsulates what it means to be an awkward teenager.  

The story also touches on race and cultural differences. As a Chinese-Canadian woman, Domee Shi includes pieces from her own culture and upbringing in her first solo film. Mei Lee is constantly under pressure from her mother Ming (Sandra Oh), who expects her to be a picture perfect child. Mei Lee is signed up for academic extracurriculars, must achieve the highest grades and is expected to help out at the family’s ancestral museum. 

Other inclusions of rich Chinese culture make “Turning Red” a comforting watch for Chinese or Asian viewers in general. The family honors and prays to their deep line of ancestors, putting family above all else. In the movie, Ming describes the inconvenient quirk of their family — each woman in the family tree will turn into a panda upon experiencing strong emotion. This fictional mythology was a fun inclusion to the movie. 

Overall, this film is a great watch for teens, kids and adults alike. Filled with cringey moments, family and friendship, “Turning Red” is a bright reminiscence of the struggles we have all faced on the cusp of our adolescence.  

Rating: 5/5  

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