Pixar Animation Studios’ newest release “Turning Red” is a refreshing take on Asian representation and the perfect visual love letter to preteens and teenage girls everywhere, including my 13-year-old self.
It is very rare to see an honest portrayal of a teenage girl on the big screen and “Turning Red” doesn’t shy away from including the cringe-worthy and unpleasant parts of growing up, as opposed to just depicting the often idealized version of it.
The Pixar full-length film is also the first of the franchise to primarily center around Asian characters and be directed by an Asian woman, Domee Shi.
“Turning Red” is not another Asian-led animated movie where the young lead sets out to save the world with their martial art skills but rather features a 13-year-old Asian girl acting their age while still honoring the cultural aspect in a respectful manner.
Set in urban Toronto in the early 2000s, the film tells a story about Chinese-Canadian teen Meilin Lee, also referred to as ‘Mei’, as she goes through the wondrous yet awkward years of being a young girl and navigating her family, her friendships and most importantly, herself.
As a witty metaphor for the uncontrollable changes when one goes through puberty, Mei turns into a giant red panda, due to a hereditary family trait, when she is overcome with an emotion.
Watching Mei on screen, I saw part of myself in the quirky tween– from the pressure of making her Asian parents proud to the undying love she has for her favorite boy band 4*TOWN.
The film begins with Mei narrating everyday life that shows her balancing between parental expectations and figuring out her own individuality. She is an overachieving student and dutiful daughter but at the same time enjoys fangirling with her friends and fantasizing about her crushes through notebook doodles.
Integral to the story, her cultural surroundings hold significance to Mei and every decision she makes. Mei’s dilemma is notably illustrated when she turned down going to karaoke with her friends to help take care of her family’s temple dedicated to their ancestors.
It hits home seeing how Mei works so hard to garner praise from her parents and is terrified to lose her mother’s approval because those were also a part of the internal struggles I faced growing up.
Her overprotective mother, Ming, caused many embarrassing moments for the tween in the film like when she confronted her daughter’s crush, a teen convenience store clerk, with the drawings Mei doodled of him or when she held up a box of pads in front of Mei’s friends at school.
Throughout the movie, I find myself laughing not at the characters but rather laughing with them. It reminded me of the silly things I did at 13 like dramatically hiding under my bed when a minor inconvenience or embarrassing moment happened.
After being publicly embarrassed by her mom’s unintentional actions, Mei’s vivid nightmares led her to the transformation into a large red panda.
Mei learned from her mother that the transformation was linked back to her ancestors and the shared history they have with red pandas was a family curse that could only be contained by performing a special ritual on a specific night when a red moon appears.
The ritual happened to coincide on the night of the concert by her favorite boy band 4*TOWN.
Like Mei, I remember obsessing over boy bands like One Direction at 13 years old and truthfully still do with more recent groups like SEVENTEEN or Monsta X almost a decade later.
I also appreciate how the film highlights Mei’s tight knit group of friends – Miriam, Priya and Abby, who accepts her just the way she is, red panda or not. Seeing the group of four girls reminded me of the few close key friendships I had at the same age and relied on heavily through the thick and thins of middle school.
One quote in particular that stuck out to me was from Mei’s father Jin who said “People have all sides to them, some sides are messy. It isn’t to wish the bad stuff away but it’s to make room for it, to live with it.”
When Mei started to accept her red panda instead of suppressing it was when she really blossomed.
“Turning Red” conveys the importance of accepting all sides of who you are and to remember that it’s okay if you are not able to control part of yourself because there are people who will love and accept you no matter what.
Tackling topics like female puberty, embracing traditions in a modern society and intergenerational trauma in an honest manner, “Turning Red” made me cringe, laugh, cry, reflect and as an added bonus, subconsciously hum 4*TOWN’s “Nobody Like U” for days to come.
“Turning Red” is currently streaming on Disney+.
Hien Nguyen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.