By: Jaclyn Kotora, Editorial Staff (‘23)

Directed by Domee Shi, the first Asian woman to direct a Pixar film, Turning Red is a coming-of-age story about the thirteen-year-old Mei Lee, as she struggles between following family expectations/obligations and her desires of adolescence. Essentially living two separate lives, Mei Lee enjoys the impulsiveness and chaos of her youth, singing and dancing with her best friends, and obsessing over their favorite boy band, 4*Town. While at home, she lives a more conservative lifestyle, helping her family run their ancestral temple and being subject to her mother’s wishes. However, ancient magic and what could be described as “puberty” causes Mei to turn into a giant red panda when her emotions are provoked. Mei is torn between being the dutiful daughter and the spirited teen throughout the movie. Turning Red dives into cultural issues and controversy, generational trauma, Asian culture/expectations, and identity. 

Perhaps one of the most admirable things about this Pixar film is its Asian representation and cultural awareness. The movie not only highlights Asian heritage through its vivid descriptions of the ancestral temple and Chinatown, but it also dives into some intergenerational trauma and cultural expectations. Especially in Asian communities, mental health issues are often overlooked. As explained before, whenever Mei Lee experiences intense emotions, she turns into a giant panda. In response, her mother originally directs her to “suppress the panda”, making Mei fear her flaws and part of her identity. Later on in the movie, however, Mei embraces these parts of herself that she once suppressed. Identity is an ongoing theme of the movie and is something all viewers can relate to. 

Additionally, the movie touches on many cultural values/pressures such as family obligation, piety, academics, acceptable marriages, and appearance. Throughout the majority of the film, Mei Lee exhibits perfectionist tendencies to be what she thinks her family and ancestors will deem acceptable. However, although the movie broke many barriers and stereotypes, I couldn’t help but wonder if it was enforcing some of the Asian stereotypes. For instance, there’s an idea that all Asian mothers are “tiger moms” or “helicopter parents”, and Mei Lee’s mother was portrayed in an overexaggerated version of this—obsessively controlling and borderline crazy. I feel it may have been reinforcing an idea that is certainly not always true for this ethnic group. On the other hand, growing up with an Asian mother and family, I have experienced many of the other sentiments explored in the film, and it was pleasant to see something I related to. In some ways, I certainly believe that the portrayal of these traditional expectations/values helps Asian viewers feel seen/understood, but it also may unintentionally reinforce some misleading stereotypes about Asian culture.

Turning Red is also revolutionary due to the fact that it openly discusses menstruation, teenage lust, and overall puberty—things that Pixar’s previous coming-of-age stories shy away from. Some critics have complained that the discussion of these topics as being “too mature for PG audiences”,  sparking controversy among viewers. Seeing that most teenagers experience puberty at ages 12-13, I believe it is appropriate to talk about and normalize something that they will all experience soon. However, while it was good to normalize teenage lust in this Disney movie, it was taken to a level where it reinforces the idea that the only thing girls care about is boy bands and crushes. And in multiple instances, things like public embarrassment, crushes, teasing, and other types of conflict were portrayed in perhaps the most exaggerated way possible. The whole movie was pretty overdramatic, but the messages remained clear, powerful, and inspiring. Plus, the movie’s message of “accepting our inner beast” is something many adolescents can benefit from learning.

Another thing that makes this movie so enjoyable is its colorful aesthetic and tactile animation, combining aspects of Japanese anime and Western animation into its own unique universe. And perhaps the most heartwarming thing about this film is the portrayal of the various healthy relationships between characters. Mei Lee is surrounded by so much love and support from her family and friends, and it was touching to see how everyone uplifted each other and supported them in their struggles. Overall, Turning Red delivered a brilliant multicultural landscape and characters, revolutionizing Pixar’s film industry by exploring concepts of puberty and culture. While this animated film can be described as overdramatic at times, it was heartwarming, enlightening, inspiring, and humorous.