Movie Review – “TURNING RED”

Pixar’s New Movie Shares the Highs and Lows of Being a Teenager (and Being a Red Panda)

Kristen Nemoto Jay
Commentary, special for the Hawai’i Herald


“Turning Red” poster (Screenshot from Domee Shi’s Instagram page)

There’s so much to discuss about Disney and Pixar’s latest movie “Turning Red,” which I found to be one of the most interesting and refreshing of all Disney and Pixar movies (trust me, I’ve all seen). From puberty and sexuality to generational trauma and family dynamics, “Turning Red” hits a lot of bases that have struggled not to cross over in the past and I’m so glad it’s happening now, especially in these difficult times for so many teenagers. For starters, “Turning Red” is Disney and Pixar’s first feature film directed by an Asian woman and features its second lead Asian character since the 2009 film “Up.” Meilin “Mei” Lee (voiced by Rosalie Chiang), the film’s heroine, is a 13-year-old Chinese-Canadian who struggles to balance being an obedient daughter to her overbearing mother Ming (voiced by Sandra Oh) while loving her favorite boy band known as the name of 4*Ville with her three best friends.

Meilin’s two worlds and identities collide when Mei’s mother embarrasses her by confronting a boy she likes, showing him pictures Mei drew of him in her notebook. The confrontation is torturous to watch as she begs her mother to stop, unsuccessfully, yelling at the boy Ming claims is corrupting her daughter’s innocence. Mei’s classmates gather around the commotion and laugh uncontrollably, stirring the pot of what has become a teenage nightmare stew. Mei, being the submissive girl she is known to her mother, keeps a steady face after the encounter and continues to tell her mother that everything is fine. Plan on that night in Mei’s room and she’s not well. She is of course mortified and cries herself to sleep.

The next day, after a nightmare filled with images of her crush and 4*Town, Mei wakes up to find that she is no longer herself. It’s a big furry red panda! Confused and oblivious to what has become of her new body, Mei starts screaming and pouting in agony. A relatable moment that I – and perhaps many women – particularly enjoyed afterwards was when Mei shouted in the bathroom “Ah! It’s not happening! to which Ming gasps later “but it’s too much. soon!” As Mei’s dad hilariously and cautiously slips into the background, a startling but thoughtful scene of Ming rushing into the bathroom to offer a slew of menstrual pad options and remedies to cure what Ming believes to be Mei’s period follows, while Mei, still a red panda, hides behind the shower curtain and thanks her mother for the offer.Mei then finds herself turning human again once she has calmed down, her best friends surrounding her in a group hug is the only image in her mind that helps her comeback.

Without giving too much away, Mei continues to navigate her teenage years while being a red panda, which pops up whenever she gets too excited and can be completely fixed on the night of the red moon. Her parents also discover her seemingly familiar new ability to transform, a gift given to every woman in order to protect them as they reach adulthood. Add to that the mix of 4*Town arriving in Toronto the same night as the Red Moon and Mei finally has to choose between the two worlds; one that his family approves of and one that scares him but excites him to learn and discover more.

Like many Disney and Pixar movie plots, “Turning Red” didn’t disappoint by sharing a fundamental and universal lesson, which in this case is that of a mother and daughter finding common ground in the mess that is adolescence. I found myself, and even my skeptical-husband-not-getting-mad-for-Disney-too-much, squirming at cringe-worthy moments. One, in particular, was when Ming was arrested for trespassing on Mei’s school property by the school’s security guard. What happened next made even my hubs go “Oh (insert swear word here)when Ming shouted out loud to Mei to tell her it’s “Mom!” and she forgot her “pads!”

Me with Isaac, a member of Hanson’s boy band, after their concert held at the Republik in Honolulu on Sept. 26, 2019. (Photo by Iwi Jay)

There were so many examples in the film that made me look back on my early teenage years. Mei’s love for 4*Town especially resonated with me. My 4* town was Hanson. Yeah, I said it. Hansen. Although my mother was nowhere near as strict as Ming, there were instances of disapproval for my obsession with the group of boys wearing long-haired Doc-Martens when the entirety of my bedroom wall was covered in every teen magazine article and poster I could get my hands on. That’s when I asked to start sticking the posters to the ceiling because I was running out of vertical space on the walls, that’s when my mom put her foot down and said “who are you?” confused look. I was devastated, not because she was telling me not to be able to fall asleep looking into Taylor Hanson’s eyes, but because I felt, at least just in this case, that I had become someone I my mother had disapproved. Admittedly, it was the one and only time I felt like my own version of a “red scary monster” within my family, I can relate to – and probably anyone who’s been through puberty – the central theme of the film of what it does not to be understood.

The emphasis on the “P” in the film’s “PG” rating is suggested for these moments of sexuality and puberty, but also for scenes of generational trauma that can arise in family dynamics. In the end, Mei meets Ming’s younger self and finally understands why her mother has become who she is. Ming’s mother, Mei’s grandmother, recognizes the difficulties in which her teachings were carried and finally learns to embrace the women who are her daughter and granddaughter.

Overall, I thought the film was enjoyable, filled with relevant, quirky, fun, and heartwarming moments. The fact that it’s so specific to a character like Mei — who, according to director Domee Shi, is the reincarnation of herself growing up — makes this movie even rarer to see. Too often, we the general public are force-fed with media stories, especially white, male-centric, cisgender characters. “Turning Red” was a breath of fresh air with a mix of ethnicities and age groups, all different but related due to everyone’s need to want to be themselves despite what is expected of them. I want to show this movie to my daughter one day. Hope this helps with all the “red scary monster” moments. It happens to all of us, but this time she’ll have more than pads and music to help her get back to being herself; anyone or anything.

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