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Turning Red – Disney+

This week, our writers delve into the latest addition to the Disney Pixar family, Turning Red. The film is directed by Domee Shi – Chinese-American director, animator and screenwriter – who was actually a Pixar intern only 11 years ago.

Tackling puberty, parent-child relationships and intergenerational trauma through the lens of a giant fluffy red panda is certainly no easy feat. Did they pull it off, I hear you ask? Stick around to find out what our writers thought…

A giant cartoon red panda clings on to a bending iron rail, which is part of the stairway outside a tall apartment block. They are high up, and look panicked by the prospect of falling. Behind them is a town skyline, with trees underneath them.
uh oh…

Lucy May

Does anybody else remember Bao, the Pixar short from 2018?

I do, it made me cry in the cinema before the film had even started. It should therefore come as no surprise that Turning Red, by the same director Domee Shi, also had me sobbing.

Bao and Turning Red handle some similar themes: Parent-child relationships, coming of age; both are set in Chinese-Canadian communities. but I am so very glad I put aside my Saturday afternoon to meet Meilin Lee. Despite my turning thirteen being (scream) over 10 years ago now, I found so, so much of her experience terrifyingly relatable: I’m thirteen years old, I am therefore now a woman. Yep. Felt that.

When she transformed for the first time, I watched with gritted teeth. The concept is not new: I’ve seen it done many a time – in that weird Netflix cartoon, Bigmouth, in Quentin Blake’s Zagazoo, in Bao, children undergo literal transformation as a metaphor for growing up.Turning Red, however, I found especially relatable. Many of the transformation scenes take place in bathrooms, that holy space in which mothers and daughters and sisters often bond, where we are so vulnerable with ourselves. It really brought home that feeling of not fitting into your childhood anymore, as though everywhere you turn you’ll damage something, or you’ll see something in a mirror that frightens you.

Another brilliant aspect of this film is how it empowers teenage emotion. I challenge you to find more accurate representation of girls simping and sighing over musicians than Meilin and her friends, with their Disney Pixar doe-eyes and flushed cheeks. On the one hand, she is taught to fight and control these surging feelings (for fear of turning into the giant panda), but on the other, the film absolutely empowers this adoration by showing how it applies to her red panda-self. By the end, Red Panda has t-shirts, keyrings, posters, her own hoardes of screaming fans, as she experiences what it’s like to receive the love she herself feels for the boyband 4-town. One moral of this story is to never, ever underestimate (or belittle) what a thirteen-year-old girl can feel. 

I don’t think this film was completely without flaws. But I do think that the gaps left for the audience are careful and well-placed. Take the scar on Grandmother’s eyebrow. We’re told that Meilin’s mother, Ming, caused it, but we’re never told exactly how. It’s a purposeful gap in the story, I hurt her, I hurt my mum, I was so angry, I lost control, for the reader to fill with ghosts of their own. 

The scene that brought me to tears was one towards the end, when Meilin is comforting Ming. [NB: incoming spoilers]. The spirit-dimension shows us Ming as a young girl, as someone once in the very position Meilin is in currently. In a gesture repeated from the beginning of the film, the girl reaches out and tucks her mother’s hair behind her ear, making her look up from crying.

The echoed gesture encapsulates so much: it’s inherited from generations, it’s an expression of empathy, it comments on the mother-daughter dynamic. It caught me completely off-guard, showing us the moment Meilin sees her mother as a whole person, a frame of mind that takes years in reality, condensed into a single, haunting moment. Perhaps I’m just soft, or perhaps Domee Shi knows the way to my heart. Regardless, I feel the mother-daughter relationships at the core of this film were depicted beautifully.

Director Domee Shi stands proudly, hand on hip, in front of a large poster advertising 'Turning Red;' On the poster, a giant red panda grins. Domee Shi smiles at the camera.
They both look so proud…

Juliette

I came into this with little to no expectations, and I ended up pleasantly surprised! This is definitely one of the better children’s film since Coco (I found Encanto rather lacklustre). I struggled to connect the film with the trailers, which got some heated backlash with the animation style which launched a debate on the uncanny valley. [Apparently, a lot of people are angry Pixar is continuing with Luca’s animation style of larger heads and teeth.] I’ll admit that at first, I was distracted by the proportions of Mei’s face and her teeth; but as the quality of the film greatly improved, this drifted into the background.

Mei is a fantastic protagonist and a great role model for children. She reminded me of Molly from Booksmart, being a extroverted, nerdy rule abider. At first, I wasn’t sure what to make about Mei being fixated on being a perfect daughter and student, and the general theme of Asian families suppressing their emotions and being burdened by shame. As someone of East Asian heritage, these are stereotypes which unfortunately are often founded in truth, but I think it is a predictable choice for Asian film narratives. However, I will say that as the film went on, I feltt hat the subject matter was dealt in a more nuanced and profound manner. And I guess Asian representation has been so lacking (whether that be East, South-East or South) in this century that this film is a positive start. I love the characterisation of Mei’s red panda and the origin story behind it; I particularly loved how her ancestor’s decision to become a red panda came about from wanting to protect her family and community. What a badass. I loved when Mei’s red panda form would wiggle her eyebrows or when she enthusiastically proclaimed her love for gyrating! It was interesting that this was used as a metaphor for puberty, and how explicitly her mum introduced her to sanitary products. I hope this will be the way forward for children’s films to normalise periods and puberty. 

Mei’s mother has to be my favourite character. I do think at first she did lean into stereotypes about Asian mothers: strict, overbearing and controlling – though she was reasonable enough that it never verged into the “tiger mum” stereotype. It was mortifyingly funny seeing her hide behind a tree to give Mei her sanitary towels in front of her entire class, and how she cowered into the couch after hearing that her mum was on the phone. It was really well done how they looked into the repressed shame she had and her wounded inner child. Whilst the elders in the family (like the grandma) mean well, this film demonstrates perfectly how intergenerational pain is passed down through generations. I love how the film centred on the women in Mei’s family and how they dealt (or rather struggle to deal with) with their respective “pandas”. In regards to the themes around shame and repression, the pandas were an interesting metaphor of how to embrace our messier sides and how if this becomes latent, it becomes a “monster” of its own. Without any spoilers, there was a bigger message on autonomy and how every decision is valid which feels important with female characters.

I wonder how it would have felt to have seen this kind of representation when I was younger, particularly with a character that’s more of an “everyman” rather than a warrior or a princess. Apparently there’s a mostly female team behind the scenes, which would explain the well-written women. I wouldn’t go far as to say this is my favourite release of the year (hopefully Multiverse of Madness will be) but it was an enjoyable watch I’d recommend to all ages. 

A close up of a giant red panda cartoon, with wide eyes and hands pressed to cheeks. It's mouth is open in a perfect 'o' shape, It looks very shocked.
oop!

Wayne

For the first few minutes of this, Mei is a really abrasive, unlikeable character. Talking straight to the camera like an overly-caffeinated Fleabag. 

Turning Red is the third Pixar movie to debut on Disney Plus. No smoke without fire, I thought (you’d have thought given the whole ‘Don’t Say Gay Bill’ debacle, Disney would see Turning Red as a home run). Domee Shi is the first woman to solo direct a Pixar film, the first to make it onscreen by an all-woman team and the first Pixar film to focus on a female Asian character.

The plot sounds promising at first glance. A girl in the flourishes of puberty turns into a giant red panda every time she gets too excited. The premise is inevitably wasted unfortunately.

First off. Inside Out, Encanto, Moana, told this story better. The plot is a mess, the characters felt two-dimensional, and the run-time is far too long.

Having a red panda as the emblem of womanhood seemed a little too on the nose. Thinking about it though, puberty as a literal and emotional, destructive, transformative act makes sense. Shi also captures its goofy, embarrassing side, well in the early, simple moments.

It was sad to see Mei’s dad, Jin, delegated to the under-the-thumb husband role (although his late save almost makes up for it). The period products panic is the first of a few missteps that muddy whatever message the movie is trying to tell.

The Asian characters felt strangely stereotypical, and the way Mei and her friends exploited her panda powers to buy concert tickets seemed an odd plot decision. A bit out of keeping with the overall message. Probably just to set up that unnecessary Kaiju Care Bear brawl ending.

The animation beautifully blends East and West. Billie Eilish and brother Finneas O’Connell’s soundtrack bangs. Ludwig Göransson’s score complements it wonderfully, continuing his work on The Mandalorian, Black Panther, and Tenet

Really, it’s when the film goes full Disney that the little moments are sadly lost. It’s a shame, because Turning Red is often really good.

However.

The last 30 minutes really got me. Mei, Ming and Wu came alive like they hadn’t before. It was truly touching. though it would’ve been interesting if Mei’s relatives had followed her example at the end. You’ll have to watch it to see what I mean. A touch too Disney perhaps.

I got this trio and their struggles. I think in that moment I managed to finally connect with the film as a relatively new father, albeit of a boy. Where do you strike that between letting your child live their life, not letting them live it because you never go the chance or even living the life you never had through them? And, do we inevitably grow into our parents?

Overall, Turning Red is a worthy enough addition to the catalogue and a decent enough way to pass an afternoon. But I fear you’ll be re-watching it for the visuals and not this coming of age lite story.

Turning Red is now streaming on Disney+

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