Rich with thematic elements, but still thoroughly enjoyable, Domee Shi’s Turning Red shows deep insight into mother-daughter relationships as well as cultural touchstones and life as a pubescent girl.
Rosalie Chiang lends to the voice to Meilin “Mei” Lee, a 13-year-old Chinese-Canadian girl living in Toronto. Her days are spent overachieving at school, working at the family temple, and attempting to make her overprotective mother Ming (Sandra Oh) proud. Secretly, Mei obsesses over the boy band 4*Town along with her friends Miriam (Ava Morse), Priya (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan), and Abb (Hyein Park).
One night, following a nightmare, Mei wakes up as a large red panda. Initially able to conceal this from her parents, she is triggered by Ming embarrassing her at school and transforms again. When she reaches home, Ming explains that all the women in the family share the panda trait and it needs to be harnessed and suppressed with an ancient ritual by the next blood moon – a month later.
When 4*Town announced a date in Toronto, Mei utilizes the panda’s popularity to raise money to go, despite Ming expressly forbidding it. Mei must navigate her desire to live her own life with the desires of her mother while trying to keep the panda inside.
The metaphors for puberty are ever-present, with the panda representing the metaphorical transformation of a girl “turning red” but also the rebellious nature that those feelings represent. Ming wants Mei to suppress the panda and return to the little girl that she raised, while Mei finds independence and popularity with the panda’s appearance.
The pressure Ming places on Mei is as pressing as the panda. When Mei rebels, Ming’s reaction is not to be upset at her daughter, but push back against the outside influences that she feels are responsible. In her mind, Mei is perfect by nature and the only way things could go wrong is due to people corrupting her. When Mei obsesses over a boy working at a convenience store and Ming finds out, she confronts the boy; who had no idea what she is talking about. Not only does it embarrass Mei, it alienates her from the rest of the world. Ming is never aware of this.
While these themes focus on awkward and embarrassing, friendship is equally as prominent. Mei and her friends are brought together through mutual respect and shared interests. Not only that, but the group has their own unique communications and eccentricities. The group might be weird, but they are weird around each other, so they don’t really care. The friend group is the strongest relationship in the film.
The voice cast of relative unknowns (outside of Oh) does a spectacular job embodying their characters. Chiang and Oh both play well off each other, while Orion Lee plays a loving straight man as Mei’s father Jin. Ramakrishnan was a personal favorite of mine with her monotone humor, with Park as her personality opposite. No voice actor misses a beat.
Unsurprisingly, Pixar finds the perfect balance between a story kids will love and one parents will connect with on a deeper level. I am not an immigrant and I was never a pubesent girl, but it doesn’t mean I didn’t connect with the film. Everyone can remember the pressure of hormonal childhood and living up to your parent’s expectations. Additionally, the entire world of Turning Red is filled with immigrants with their own customs and cultures. It is never judged and is just part of life.
Shi and the voice cast make Turning Red a homerun for both kids and adults. Pixar has delivered one of the more mature outings of children’s films in years. I look forward to watching it again.
Turning Red is now streaming on Disney+