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A silhouette of elands grazing in the plains with raising sun in the background inside Mas
  • Writer's pictureBryce Chismire

Turning Red

Updated: Jun 30


Do you remember the movie Luca?

With its charming animation, gorgeous atmosphere, likable characters, and a childlike sense of wonder, it captured the mere essence of summer while evoking that of your inner child. I found it very relaxed, beautiful, and bright.

Well, you better brace yourself because Pixar just dished out a round of animated cinema that only feels wackier by comparison. And look no further than Turning Red!

This movie may look relatively simple on the outside, but there’s a lot to wrap your head around when you dive into it. The story is about a 13-year-old girl named Meilin Lee, who enjoyed life at middle school in Toronto, Canada, in 2002. She did everything expected from her to the nth degree, getting consistently good grades and participating in extracurricular activities. Of course, the only problem with that was that it made her the laughing stock of her school peers, who dismissed her as being a goody-goody. It sounds like something you’d expect from Hogarth from The Iron Giant, don’t you think? However, every time she finished school, she immediately had to dart off to her family home as an assistant manager of a Chinese shrine she and her family watched over. According to her mother, Ming, this shrine was the oldest Chinese ritual in Toronto, and their family inherited it from their ancestors for generations. However, what was really getting Meilin down was Ming’s expectations of her; she always expected the best out of Meilin, almost pressured her to excel at what she does, and expected her to be the perfect daughter in their family. This way of looking at things got under Meilin’s nerves, though, for she said she wanted to live more independently from her family on more than one occasion. The following morning, however, Meilin woke up to discover that she had transformed into a giant red panda. It inevitably wigged Meilin out, feeling like she had turned into this horrible monster and that there was no way to turn back into a human. However, her father, Jin, slipped up and said that he and Ming anticipated this, even though it came too early for them. As Meilin’s parents told her, their ancestor, Sun Yee, had a deep love of animals, especially the red pandas. It was so deep, that she requested to the gods for her to be transformed into a red panda herself, especially as she warded off crusaders from China in the following years. Still wrapping her head around all of this, Meilin had to find out how to get out of her panda form, only to discover that she could have temporarily gotten back into human form when she was in a calmer state of mind. The parents also told Meilin that there was a cure to get rid of her curse. The only way to rid Meilin of her panda form was for her to participate in a Chinese ritual that would’ve entailed them and their relatives gathering together to perform an incantation, and only under a Red Moon.

But that’s not the only thing Meilin had to struggle with. Fortunately for Meilin, she had three best friends who were always on her side: Miriam, the more modest and understanding of the girls, Abby, the loudest and brashest in the group, and Priya, the sassy girl. Together, they all engaged in the everyday things you’d expect girls their age to do, like express their crushes, gossip about local goings-on, all that jazz. However, they became ecstatic when they discovered that their favorite boy band, 4Town, was coming soon to perform in a local concert. However, now that Meilin had to keep her panda form under control and not get too agitated, she tried her hardest to keep up appearances and not get triggered, especially by the local bully in school, Tyler. However, this didn’t last long; when Meilin saw Ming staring at her from outside, Meilin transformed into a red panda again, this time in front of the student body. However, when Meilin and her friends were expecting harassment from their peers because of this transformation, to their surprise, the exact opposite effect happened. Instead of dreading her panda form, the student body thought Meilin was adorable as a red panda. Suddenly, this gave Meilin and the girls an idea: they would’ve told their parents about more extracurricular activities they would’ve participated in and used that as a façade to arrange a meet-and-greet with the students who wanted to come and see Meilin in her panda form. They would’ve included chats, photo shooting, and dances, and all at a reasonable price for each. That way, the girls would’ve had the money they needed to buy the tickets to the forthcoming 4Town concert. But only one more problem stemmed from that; the 4Town concert Meilin and the girls were getting ready for happened to be scheduled on the same day as the Red Moon incantation, where Meilin would’ve said goodbye to her panda form. And here she was, getting more and more used to it. To make things more complicated for Meilin, her parents warned her earlier that if she indulged in her panda form too long, she would’ve had less control over it.

What to do, what to do?

I found it pretty fascinating how the movie was about an Asian family living not in America but in, of all places, Toronto, Canada. The only conclusion I drew upon watching this film was that maybe the movie had some autobiographical ties to what the writers, director, or animators expressed back in their hometown of Toronto and translated them as such for Turning Red. But I didn’t find it too jarring. I admired how colorful and realistic Toronto looked while keeping the dignity of Meilin’s family and household strong and in a way that it doesn’t make it feel alienated from the rest of Toronto. Besides, its main center of attention was the generational divide between Meilin and her elders before her. It’s not too different from other such stories that explored it, like The Flower Drum Song and perhaps The Joy Luck Club, but the quarrels and debates about what amounted to something valuable and what didn’t were still important and prevalent here. Plus, the idea of it taking place in Toronto instead of San Francisco felt like a nice change of pace.

Speaking of generational divides, the characters themselves were pretty fascinating. Starting with the main lead, Meilin, she felt about as goofy, determined, bossy, and sometimes unsure of herself as you’d expect from your everyday middle schooler. She always had dreams and aspirations and had an instinctive desire to become her own person without feeling dominated by her overbearing mother, who I’ll get to in a minute. But, because she was already 13 years old, she started feeling some unexpected feelings about herself, which resulted in her becoming more emotional and less in control of herself. It was one of the reasons she would’ve turned into a red panda in the first place. So, when this newfound form took her over, it caused her to look through everything that she had done in her life and what her panda form would’ve done to her family, friends, and herself. At the end of the day, though, I thought she was going through these complicated scenarios in her transitional phase. So, Meilin was just a delightful character to watch.

Her mother, Ming, was a slightly pompous but no less fascinating character. Yes, she was a bit of a snob to Meilin, with her always expecting Meilin to succeed in anything she set her mind to and dissuading her from associating herself with anything that she felt Meilin was too young for. For example, she caught Meilin’s drawings from her diary about a boy she liked, and right off the bat, she assumed that the boy was making some moves on her. So she, with Meilin in tow, flat out stormed into the shop where that boy worked so she could’ve told him off, much to Meilin’s humiliation. And, because of her traditions and upbringing, she couldn’t have brought it to herself to like the things that Meilin liked. But one thing I found so memorable about her was that as she tried to take care of the situation with Meilin’s red panda form, she always wanted to insist to her family, especially her mother, Wu, that she had everything under control when it clearly looked like she didn’t. She didn’t even want to have Wu around when she insisted that she join in helping Meilin out with her panda problems. As the movie went on, Ming admitted that she did everything she did to Meilin because of her fears of Meilin turning out precisely like Ming did when she had her fight with her Wu when she was Meilin’s age. This dynamic with her character felt deep, nuanced, and interesting, especially once you dig beneath her strict pose.

Meilin’s three best friends were unique and diverse in their personalities and impressions. Miriam felt like the most sensible girl in the group, always looking out for the Meilin’s welfare and their BFFs. Abby was the noisiest and most rambunctious of the group, always saying things out loud and in an overly emotional way. And Priya felt like the moodiest girl in the group, always dishing out logical statements to Meilin in a very observant, ‘whatever’ attitude. The dynamics the three of them shared not just with one another but also with Meilin were also joyful to watch, too. I don’t know how long they’ve been together, but I can tell that these girls were inseparable, no matter what occurred.

Meilin’s father, Jin, I thought, was a very meek character. He was constantly silenced before he had a chance to say anything at any given moment. However, near the movie’s end, when he did have an opportunity to say something to Meilin, he might have shared more in common with Meilin than even she thought. He was a humble character, and every time he finally got his chance to leave behind something of worth, it felt genuine.

Let’s not forget the school bully, Tyler. Whether Meilin was a human or a panda, he was always eager to poke fun at Meilin’s insecurities and mock her for it. But a part of him showed elements of tenderness to him. For instance, he came to have a soft spot for Meilin as a red panda, too, but only because he showed hints of being a showoff, as demonstrated by his extravagant birthday party. Case in point? He bribed Meilin to partake in his birthday party as the red panda so that she and her buddies would have had the last bits of money they needed for the tickets. Also, later in the movie, Tyler snuck into the concert wrapped in 4Town memorabilia, all while he insisted that he was anyone but Tyler. In short, Tyler seemed like a half-generic, half-unexpected bully character with some distinct quirks about him.

I was pretty enamored with how the movie dealt with coming-of-age issues. Here we have Meilin, your average middle school girl living life to the fullest, all so that she could’ve proved herself as a worthy daughter in the eyes of Ming, who made an overachiever out of her and expected her to keep her emotions under control. But between balancing out her family duties back home with her mommy issues and her best friends from school, there’s so much going on that anyone her age would’ve experienced, let alone handled on her own. Even when I first saw her step in as the Toronto shrine’s assistant manager, I immediately felt like she had a greater responsibility than the other kids in school. And every time Meilin felt threatened or embarrassed by her mother’s shenanigans, she always responded—or hesitated to react—the way any kid dealing with parental issues would’ve responded.

However, one part of this movie’s coming-of-age themes that I never expected it to do was make the movie itself an allegory for puberty. Why? Because Meilin was 13 years old and suddenly, she started expressing herself in ways she never expected herself to in such stressful or strenuous situations. But whenever her emotions got out of control, such as when she’s excited, enraged, or depressed, it ignited her transformation into a red panda. The ways she responded to it were all over the board at first. She was frightened because of what she had become, but after a bit of time had passed, she came to like her panda form because it made her feel more like herself. Also, once again, Meilin could’ve turned back into a human when she was most contended or relaxed. But one problem Meilin dealt with was her parents’ expectations for her to maintain her composure no matter what. So, watching Meilin transform into a red panda when she was at her most stressful and back into a human again - complete with red hair, of course - with this allegory in mind raises many interesting questions.

There was one scene where I thought her emotional outbursts aroused some interesting discussions concerning her sense of control over them. In this scene, things went south for Meilin and her friends when they discovered at Tyler’s birthday party that the 4Town concert and her Red Moon incantation were both to occur on the same night. When Meilin was harassed by Tyler once again, this time about her mother, Meilin leaped down upon Tyler and gave him probably the good scare of his life. Even though Meilin may have gone too far in attacking Tyler and unleashing her fury onto him in her panda form, I like how this scene showed the consequences of Meilin attacking in her panda form and when she knew that she went too far in her outbursts and reactions. It added another element of satisfactorily juicy drama within another anticipatory and expected payback.

Funny. Inside Out chronicled the struggles of a young girl as expressed through the personifications of her conflicting emotions. In the case of Turning Red, it did the same thing, except it was through the visual manifestations of Meilin’s pubescent mood swings.

I also read, however, that the other allegories concerning the movie leaned more into the supernatural side. For example, some reports claimed that Turning Red was quote-unquote ‘satanic’ and that Meilin getting more in touch with her panda form was equivalent to contentedness with a demonic spirit. Heck, the ritual that Meilin’s family planned for her centered around removing her panda form from her body and sealing it away, almost like an exorcism. But for me? Yeah, I’m not buying that. As I stated, this meant to be another way of interpreting puberty. And the way I see it, letting go of the form that makes you you is equivalent to giving up the part of you that is the undiluted, unrestrained you, the implications of which may do more harm than good. So no, the idea of Turning Red being satanic is just hogwash.

But that’s not the only thing I find worth mentioning. For me, the most memorable part of the movie lies in the animation and its sense of humor. Luca’s animation felt very wide-eyed and cartoony, and it resembled the feelings of youth as expressed through Luca and Alberto in a very contended manner. Turning Red, on the other hand? The animation of this movie felt equivalent to diving into the mind of a hyperactive child. It was just wild and very wacky! The characters all moved about in a very agile way, some of them big and loud and others sharp and stilted, and the expressions were such that it felt more like a cartoon than the other Pixar flicks before it, including Luca. I loved how, every time the characters emoted as they did, their emotions felt exaggerated. One scene I can think of that perfectly demonstrated it was when Ming discovered Meilin’s drawings of a boy she liked and told him off about it at the store where he worked. Before Ming saw her drawings, Meilin reacted with big sweat beads, redder cheeks, and her inner voice pleading for Ming not to see them as Meilin hemmed and hawed. But when it didn’t work out, Meilin usually expressed her disappointment and humiliation perfectly, as did Ming with her stern, motherly confrontations with the boy. When she confronted him, she walked in a stiff, limited movement outside of her legs. And her scolding resulted in some amusingly off-kilter expressions that conveyed her in a comedic light even in her more irritating moments.

But that’s nothing compared to how Ming decided to watch over Meilin as she went back to school after her panda misadventures. First, she always hid inside a tree, then inside a bush, and quarreled with a nearby security guard when he asked her to leave. Something about her spying on Meilin this way was just so oddball that it gets a good laugh out of me.

Even when Meilin transformed into her red panda form, her visual expressions were diverse and equally as wacky. Sometimes, she can be large and menacing. Other times, she looked like a big scaredy-cat. And other times, she just felt like a lovable, cuddly furball you want to snuggle up to. Not only that, but I also like how the animation was such that it could be a little mellow when it needed to be, such as during Meilin’s more down-on-her-luck periods.

Though I can’t say the music was anything to write home about, I did find the boy band, 4Town, to be flashy and a bit cheeky. Knowing that this movie took place in 2002, 4Town felt like a riff on the famous boy bands that took center stage in the late 90s and early 2000s, like NSYNC and the Backstreet Boys. The idea that five boys were in the band instead of four like their name suggested was subject to some humorous pokes here and there. And yes, the band was met with sneers from Ming, who dismissed it as just filth before also questioning the number of boys in the band. Their voices were catchy, their tunes reminded me a lot of the boy band music I grew up with, and it felt like a cute little satire on the popularity of the boy bands from that era if that’s what it meant to be.

But let’s get to one part of the animation and humor that I thought felt so surreal that it was just too good not to mention here. And again, spoilers are afoot.

After Meilin’s freakout all over Tyler at his birthday party, Meilin decided to move forth with the Red Moon incantation instead of going to the concert with her three best friends. However, in the middle of the ritual, Meilin decided against letting her panda form go and ran off to join her friends at the 4Town concert. This left Ming very agitated, to a point where her necklace exploded. And the next time I saw her? She, too, became a red panda, only she was as tall as a skyscraper once she rummaged through town in pursuit of Meilin, who patched things up just recently with her friends at the concert. The people fled for their lives from what they thought was a reckless monster, and when Ming did find Meilin, their confrontations led to even more wreckage around the concert hall. That just felt priceless. On the surface, it feels like something right out of Clash of the Titans. But when you get down to it, this is nothing more than your everyday mother and daughter butting heads. This set of dynamics pinned against one another led to some animated comedic gold in this film. Though it didn’t diminish the excitement of this showdown, the implications here still felt as wacky as you’d want in a movie like this.

As I said, there’s so much going on with this film, and they all added to the quirkiness, charm, and genuinely oddball nature that this film had to offer. Highlighting what any middle schooler would’ve experienced in a mostly relatable way is one thing. But this film also exaggerated it to its fullest comedic potential, making this story of a young girl finding herself surprisingly hilarious. Add to that its unique cultural vibes, an outside-of-the-box choice of location, and some goofy intakes on the fads of the early 2000s, and you have a movie that’s going to unleash your inner energetic child and also ignite your inner human being.

Are you experiencing some growing pains? Then bring on the laughs by bringing on the red panda!

My Rating


Additional Thoughts

Just like Soul and Luca before it, this movie was meant to come out in theaters before Disney decided to release it as a Disney+ exclusive instead. It made sense when the COVID-19 pandemic was still everywhere, but now? Because it no longer feels as rampant as before and is even on a slight decline (thank goodness), this practice with Pixar’s films is starting to get old and even insulting to Pixar’s work of genius. Even the Pixar artists and alumni were not pleased with their films being released on Disney+ instead of in theaters. However, the good news is that the next film from Pixar, Lightyear, will be released this summer in theaters, just like Turning Red and Pixar’s other films before should’ve been. So, finally, we’re getting back on track here!

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