In Pixar’s ‘Turning Red,’ a panda and puberty steal the show

( PG ) ( Monitor Movie Guide )
Confident teen Meilin Lee (voiced by Rosalie Chiang) faces new challenges when she learns that strong emotion causes her to change into a giant red panda in the Pixar film "Turning Red."

In the cleverly titled “Turning Red,” 13-year-old Meilin Lee has a gigantic secret. Whenever the eighth grader is full of strong emotion, she transforms into a giant, fluffy red panda. While Mei (voiced by Rosalie Chiang) endures the flustering embarrassment of puberty, boys, and her helicopter mother Ming (Sandra Oh), she’s also desperately trying to contain the animal within. 

Pixar and Disney are proficient at playing an audience’s heartstrings. And with “Bao” director and “Inside Out” story artist Domee Shi helming the project, it’s no surprise that the emotional and thematic landscape of “Turning Red” is voluminous. The film asks children and adults to reflect upon and embrace their inner magic, encouraging rather than stifling it. 

Set in the early 2000s, the movie may be surprisingly nostalgic for some. Lovers of Y2K fashion, Tamagotchi toys, the group Destiny’s Child, and VHS cameras are definitely in for a special treat. This, and Toronto’s Chinatown, where Mei and her family live, are all brought to life by the impressive animation, which nearly pounces off the screen. But what’s most exciting is seeing how a teen’s vibrant mind is translated. As Mei’s imagination activates, the animation follows.

Why We Wrote This

Young people are often helped by seeing depictions of their experiences on film. The latest Pixar movie, “Turning Red,” covers familiar ground in the exploration of identity, but also experiments with more directly addressing puberty.

Mei hides her increasing interest in boys from her mother with little success. And in the jungle that is middle school, even the smallest of problems can seem earth-shattering for a young person trying to come into her own.

“When I start to get emotional, all I do is imagine the people I love most in the whole world,” Mei says to her mother as part of a plea to attend a concert of her favorite boy band, despite her unpredictable condition. “Turning Red” is peppered with songs and daydreams about 4*Town, a group of five (yes five, not four) singing and dancing boys who’ve set the hearts of Mei and her eclectic friends on fire.

The film is not unlike other Pixar movies where children search for autonomy – defying their parents or choosing their own path at a young age. It does offer more teen-themed topics, including references to menstruation. But “Turning Red” hits its key points about coming of age with authenticity and without apology. 

Once she discovers her inner panda, Mei is helped by her friends Abby (left, voiced by Hyein Park), Miriam (Ava Morse), and Priya (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan).

Another focus is the intergenerational complexity of Mei’s family. The members care about each other, but the film shows viewers the distance misguided mothers and misunderstood children can create between themselves. A lot of familial dynamics are explored, and at times the plot packs in more than necessary. But as the film progresses, understanding unfolds. It demonstrates how people embrace change. 

In terms of Asian representation (and diversity overall), Pixar is increasingly making up for lost time. “Turning Red” joins other recent Disney films with Asian actors in lead roles such as Marvel’s “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” and “Eternals.” 

For many people of color, the pressure of perfection, the “model minority” myth, swells inside with no release. Mei feels this insurmountable need to please her mother, make perfect grades, and perform well in extracurriculars. But the picture demonstrates that no matter who you are, your family baggage does not define you. True self-love is magical, and that’s what makes a person. 

“Turning Red” is streaming on Disney+. It is rated PG for thematic material, suggestive content, and language. 

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