Turning Red | A Gift for Your Younger Self
Girls and women are undoubtedly the heart and soul of Pixar‘s 2022 fantasy adventure comedy Turning Red. Protagonist Meilin Lee (voiced by Rosalie Chiang), affectionately known as “Mei” to her quirky group of friends, immediately introduces viewers to the colorful life of a pre-teen girl in early 2000s Toronto. Juggling tradition and modernity, Mei goes from fangirling over boy bands to lecturing tourists about her family’s heritage. But when that balance begins to unravel, Mei is forced to choose sides.
Distributed by Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures, Turning Red is the directorial debut of Chinese-born Canadian director Domee Shi. Shi is the first woman filmmaker to serve as the sole director of a Pixar feature movie. Turning Red contains several autobiographical references, ranging from a young girl’s first experience with puberty to a cultural view of family pressure. These personal touches make the characters and their struggles feel real and relatable to many.
At the upcoming 95th Academy Awards, Turning Red earned a nomination for Best Animated Feature. Four years earlier, Shi won the Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film with Bao (2018).
A healthy way to manage emotions
Mei is a 13-year-old Chinese-Canadian girl who strives to be the best at everything she does to make her mother proud. Together with her parents, she takes care of the family temple dedicated to red pandas and their ancestors. Mei’s mother Ming (voiced by Sandra Oh, best known for her roles in Grey’s Anatomy and Killing Eve) is overprotective and often ends up accidentally embarrassing her daughter. After one such public embarrassment, Mei discovers a power that runs in her family: she can transform herself into a giant red panda when emotions overwhelm her.
Mei’s family generally views the panda’s appearance as negative. Therefore, their solution is to seal the red panda inside an object, never to have access to it again. In other words, this is the equivalent of sealing their emotions. Ming always seems very self-controlled. Although, Mei learns from her father Jin (Orion Lee) that her mother was much more reckless in her youth. It will be up to Mei to decide if she wants to follow in her family’s footsteps or find a new way to stay in touch with her emotions.
Talking about going through puberty (and periods)
Despite its vibrant, colorful, and lighthearted appearance, Turning Red has drawn some criticism for its themes. First, the metaphor behind Mei’s transformation. Director Domee Shi confirmed in an interview with Polygon that:
The red panda is a metaphor not just for puberty, but also what we inherit from our moms, and how we deal with the things that we inherit from them.Domee Shi in an interview with Polygon
In one of the movie’s most well-known early scenes, Mei’s mother confuses her daughter’s reason for hiding in the bathroom and freaks out for her first period. “Has the red peony bloomed?”, she asks. The color of the red panda itself is indeed a reference to puberty.
Since puberty and periods are sometimes taboo topics in the media, and especially in children’s media, the Turning Red team was adamant about having this conversation during the movie, albeit hidden behind a cuddly and fluffy animal. In this regard, in an interview with Entertainment Weekly, Shi talks about how she wishes puberty had been more normalized during her childhood: “It’s so frustrating cause for a lot of women and girls, this is still not talked about that much. And I think that was part of my motivation for having that scene in the movie; so that these conversations can happen. We can start normalizing it.”
A movie about disobedience?
Be careful, honoring your parents sounds great, but if you take it too far, well, you might forget to honor yourself.Meilin “Mei” Lee (Rosalie Chiang)
Domee Shi’s background also influences other parts of the story, such as the family dynamics. Her Chinese upbringing comes through in the movie in a very subtle, soft way that feels domestic and real. An example of this is one of her favorite scenes “straight from her childhood”, in which Mei makes dumplings with her mother while watching Cantonese soaps on TV.
Despite being so personal, the family in Turning Red felt relatable to many. According to Vox, the movie can be read as a commentary on children of the Asian diaspora and the weight of expectations they feel. Shi confirms this interpretation when asked about her experience with pressure: “Probably the pressure from being raised by Asian parents – that trumps all. I think I have always had that feeling of wanting to make sure that my parents’ sacrifices weren’t in vain.”
However, Turning Red is careful not to fall into the stereotype of the tiger mother. Mei loves her family and is distraught by their quarrels. Therefore, although the movie has been criticized for encouraging disobedience in children, it does not seem to fit the bill. Mei never disobeys her mother unless she feels her well-being is threatened – and in the process, she never stops being considerate of everyone’s feelings. After all, who hasn’t been through puberty?
Between personal story, history, and anime
Hearing Meilin talk about her ancestors, one instinctively wants to know if her folklore has real roots. While the folklore itself was invented for the movie, it mixes elements of the Ming dynasty with images of the red panda, an animal that lives near Sichuan province – the same province from which director Shi’s family hails.
Aside from her personal life and history, Shi drew inspiration from many pieces of media that populated her life in the 2000s. A major inspiration, considering the beast-turning theme, was the teen drama Teen Wolf. The music – with three original songs written and performed by Billie Eilish and Finneas O’Connell – was inspired by the boy bands of the time.
Despite some similarities to the characters of Hulk and She-Hulk, Shi does not mention the comic book series among her influences. Instead, anime is a big part of the list. The influence is clear in both the colorful aesthetic and the exaggerated expressions typical of Japanese media. The dreamy, pastel palette is reminiscent of Sailor Moon, while the mix of magic and everyday life – and the big, fluffy animal – is reminiscent of Miyazaki‘s My Neighbor Totoro (1988).
In conclusion, this mix of Western and Asian influences makes for a movie that feels fresh and timely. Shi gives the gift to Meilin of her entire life, making it her own to explore and taking the viewer on a magical yet relatable journey.