When 13-year-old Meilin Lee gets too emotional, she suddenly finds herself inhabiting the body of a giant red panda. EEK! This first feature-length film by Pixar director Domee Shi – winner of the Oscar for Best Animated Short of 2019 for the beloved film Bao – earns a solid rating of 4.5 for its universal message coupled with the beauty of its animation. (FF: 4.5/5)
Turning Red, directed by Domee Shi, adds an extraordinary twist to the conventional coming of age story. While navigating the typical turbulence of puberty (including menstruation, romantic crushes, and the pressure of parental expectations), 13-year-old Meilin Lee sometimes gets too emotional… and suddenly finds herself in the body of a giant red panda! Using a new animation style that creates highly detailed images, Domee is free to turn old narrative tropes into vividly fresh cinematic metaphors.
Set in Toronto (Canada) in 2002 – in the place and time where she herself grew up – Turning Red lovingly draws on some of Domee’s own tween experiences. Working with her co-writers Julia Cho and Sarah Streicher, Domee does an amazing job of capturing the essence of early 21st century adolescence. One example of their exquisite attention to detail in creating Meilin’s world: Instead of texting each other on their phones, Meilin and her friends lavish tender care on their pet Tamagachis.
Meilin (voiced by Rosalie Chiang) is a fairly typical, overachieving 13-year-old girl, who gets straight A’s at school, plays musical instruments, and helps her mom at home. But one day, Meilin’s mother Ming (voiced by Sandra Oh) finds some of Meilin’s drawings. Ming misunderstands what she sees, yells, and causes a riveting scene.
After this humiliation, Meilin thanks her mom, but the next morning Meilin transforms into a giant red panda, and the film takes flight as wild antics ensue and revelations abound. The central image of the panda is so compelling because the huge creature – with its comical facial expressions – underscore Melin’s emotional turbulence.
The appearance of Meilin’s panda begins to fracture the interdependent relationship between Meilin and her mother Ming. But Meilin soon learns that all of the women in their family share this unusual trait, and when Ming turned into a Panda in her own adolescence, she had had similar problems with her mother. Thankfully, this family history helps soften Ming, who, until that point, had edged close to the stereotype of a pushy, overly- controlling Asian mother.
Through its use of the panda metaphor, Turning Red deftly explores the burden of being perfect. Failing to live up to the high standards expected in an immigrant family can create intergenerational trauma. This is one of Turning Red’s critical themes. To save Ming, Meiling’s grandmother and aunties must embrace their own pandas. In the film’s powerful conclusion, their acknowledgment of previous traditions creates the solution which enables family life to continue.
There’s nothing subtle about using the panda to evoke puberty. It is red, hairy, embarrassing, and out of control. Of course, pandas are also very cute. But as Domee explained in an interview with the New York Times, besides the appealing cuteness of the panda, she also chose it because… “there’s something about the color, too. Red represents your period. It represents being angry, being embarrassed or being very lustful for someone.”
The shift comes on when Meilin is overcome by emotions. She only turns into a panda if she gets overly emotional. When she is too excited, angry, or upset, she poofs into an 8-foot-long, fluffy panda. This association – turning red – highlights the dangers of letting your emotions overcome you. But there is also danger in bottling up emotions and not expressing oneself.
Indulging in our emotions too heavily? Rejecting our emotions entirely? As Domee shows, each reaction may lead to catastrophic results. When she calms herself down though, Meilin turns back into her 13-year-old girl body. Turning Red teaches young kids through humor and beautiful animation that they should not repress any part of their identity, but to honor both their parents and themselves. Both of these lessons are really important to kids in an era when mental health is often neglected in favor of fitting in with societal norms.
Sadly, Turning Red has generated some controversy. In an online review so contentious that it has since been taken down, one critic (sigh… a guy… of course) had this to say: the film “feels like it was made for Domee Shi’s friends and immediate family members.” He went on to imply that, because of this, the audience for the film would be small.
Ironically, this same criticism was not applied to Pixar’s 2021 release, Luca, which explored the theme of tradition versus modernity from the POV of a young Italian man. So why should a female-centered, Asian-led Pixar film face complaints that it isn’t relatable enough? Puberty, cultural inheritance, and emotional regulation are all part of coming of age and achieving maturity in our world, no matter who we are, or where we live, or what languages we speak.
Born in China in 1989, Domee was two when her parents decided to emigrate to Canada. She joined Pixar – initially as a storyboard artist on a three-month internship – in 2011. Her big break came in 2018 with the release of the beloved short film Bao. This eight-minute film about a steamed dumpling who comes to life and settles itself into a middle-aged Chinese mother’s “empty nest,” received the Oscar for Best Animated Short Film at the 91st Academy awards in 2019. By this time, Domee had already contributed to several extremely popular Pixar films (including Inside Out, Incredibles 2, and Toy Story 4.)
Kudos to Pixar for seeing the potential in Bao and backing Domee. Now Turning Red – Disney Pixar’s 25th feature – has the distinction of being the first feature in the studio’s 36-year history to be directed solely by a woman. The cultural specificity of Turning Red is exactly what makes it such an outstanding film. While Meilin’s story is made memorable by its vivid and unique evocation of her transformation into a giant red panda, the emotions and relationships are entirely universal. Witty, charming, and beautiful, Turning Red is now acknowledged as one of Pixar’s most imaginative efforts.
© Fiona Flanagan (6/14/22) – Special for FF2 Media®
LEARN MORE/DO MORE
Follow this link to Domee Shi’s Wikipedia page to learn more about her groundbreaking career. (Note that Shi is Domee’s family name.)
Click here to watch Bao which won the Oscar for Best Animated Short Film at the 91st Academy awards in 2019.
Follow this link if the word “Tamagachi” is unfamiliar to you. In a nutshell, Tamagachis are pocket-sized “virtual pets.” Back in the day, they were once extremely popular toys – especially for girls – but they have now gone the way of Betsy Wetsy and Cabbage Patch dolls.
To read the revealing NYT interview with Domee quoted above, click HERE.
CREDITS & PERMISSIONS
Images are based on scans of the Turning Red DVD cover. Rights are owned by Disney Pixar. All Rights Reserved.
FF2 BONUS! WE WERE THERE!
FF2’s Nikoleta Morales scored a press pass and went backstage at the 2019 Academy Awards ceremony on the night that Domee Shi received her Oscar!
Nikoleta had the great honor of asking the final question which begins at 6:25.