Whether you are sitting in a packed movie theater on release day with a $12 box of popcorn or at home alone watching your comfort movie for the 20th time, the world of filmmaking is exciting and full of surprises. Turning Red (2022) is a creation of that world that not only gives excitement and surprises, but also something many of us have been individually searching for: representation.
Turning Red was released on March 11, 2022, through distribution by Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures. Directed by Domee Shi, the entire one hour and forty minutes of the movie is filled with every imaginable bit of family and comedy. Although Turning Red was Shi’s first full-length feature film, her short film Bao (2018) won an Oscar Academy Award for Best Short Film (Animated) in 2019.
Shi appears to be expanding the genre of animated films to a bigger audience: an audience that was deemed to be “too old” for cartoons. What is eye-catching and heart-warming about these recent films is that their purpose is no longer to solely hold the short attention of young children, but rather to also connect with the older generations, to heal their inner child in hopes to open up space for tough discussions. Shi fulfilled that purpose with Bao as the film brought awareness to the beauty and pain of motherhood in watching a child one day depart from home. Turning Red did not fall short of Shi’s creative and thought-provoking skills.
Shortly after the movie’s release, it gained speed and received a 94% on Rotten Tomatoes. For a film to obtain an approving score of over 60%, it needs at least 40 reviews, 75% of which are positive, and 5 of which are from top critics. With a score of 94%, Turning Red finds itself tied with other beloved films such as WALL-E (2008), Finding Dory (2016), and Soul (2020).
In addition to the memorable and inspiring storyline, the cast is also quite the catch with actress Sandra Oh (who also plays Cristina Yang on the medical drama series Grey’s Anatomy) and musician Anne-Marie. When asked about her role, Anne-Marie said, “I’m a massive fan of Pixar so it was an honor to be invited to have a role in Turning Red. It’s such a special film…and I love the concept of Mei needing to figure out her journey about growing up in this weird world.”
Plot and Themes
The movie’s plot surrounds the main character Mei Lee, a 13-year-old Asian girl living in Toronto, Canada. She lives a responsible and happy life, in which she excels in school and has close relationships with her parents and friends. This storyline focuses on what happens when the chaos of adolescence tilts the familiar dynamics of relationships.
The theme of growing up and adapting to changes in the midst of adolescence is highlighted throughout the movie. Mei Lee is developing new interests, including ones about her sexuality. Whether it is about an older boy who works at a nearby convenience store or about the singers in the boy band “4-Town,” Mei Lee’s emotions are on full display. Her facial expressions and other witty behaviors are exaggerated as her eyes sparkle with happy tears and she fantasizes about being in relationships with the boys.
Another big theme of adolescent changes, specifically among females, is the introduction of the menstrual cycle. The terms “menstrual cycle” and “period” are never mentioned in the movie, nor are there any scenes displaying the process of taking care of it, but the director dropped multiple hints about the occurring situation. Mei Lee woke up one morning as a giant red panda and hid in the bathroom, while her mother attempted to offer her feminine products such as pads.
This is quite possibly the first time an adolescent’s first menstrual cycle is displayed as the main theme in an animation film, and to that, it caught a lot of attention and criticism. A majority of the critics deem the theme as scandalous for animation films and inappropriate for young children. But, as mentioned before, animation films are growing to let in a bigger audience, and conversations that many find uncomfortable to have are now explained through the screen. Embarrassing components of growing up such as having fantasies about people you like and managing the menstrual cycle are important topics of conversation adults should have with their children. Children not only need to understand what these changes are, but also that they are normal to experience. Mei Lee’s wide range of emotions can very well validate an adolescent audience who may be going through a similar situation.
Another attention-grabbing theme in Turning Red is the changing of the parent-to-child dynamic, specifically focusing on the effects of generational trauma. According to Health, generation trauma extends from one generation to the next. The concept was first introduced in 1966 with recordings of high rates of psychological distress among children of Holocaust survivors. When asked to speak about the trauma’s method of passing, clinical psychologist Dr. Melanie English said, “It can be silent, covert, and undefined, surfacing through nuances and inadvertently taught or implied throughout someone’s life from an early age onward.” This is displayed in the movie with Mei Lee’s mother’s overprotective and slightly overbearing behavior. With her mother determined to protect her from any danger of the world, Mei Lee struggles to find the balance between staying the dutiful daughter and exploring her adolescent self.
At the beginning of the movie, Mei and her mother have a close and trusting relationship in which they take care of the temple and watch drama shows together. When her mother expresses distaste for Mei’s friends and interest in 4-Town, Mei reluctantly caters to her mother’s approval. With Mei turning into a red panda and experiencing strong emotions, the relationship becomes fragile as Mei starts going against her mother’s expectations and her mother becomes increasingly overbearing. They continuously disagree with each other until the end. In the spirit realm, a ritual to strip away the red panda spirit, Mei finds a younger version of her mother. Mei discovers that her mother’s overprotective nature stems from the previous mother-daughter relationship in which she was unable to maintain her own mother’s expectations. The ending shows Mei and her mother reaching a place of mutual understanding and healing generational trauma by realizing that love is built upon choices, rather than strict expectations.
Turning Red is truly a turning point for future films as it is diving into difficult and underrepresented topics. It gives representation to the Asian culture, realistic relationship dynamics, and adolescent experiences. Domee Shi successfully appealed to the older audience, in which overall reviews are positive: “Loved it! They talk about puberty like periods and boys in a way children can understand” and “[It is] so important for young girls to see periods on tv in a non-taboo way. It is so relatable…took me back to my cringey middle school days, but in a good way.”
There will always be a special place in my heart for Pixar films. They have a unique way of showing raw emotions and genuine relationships filled with conflicts and bittersweet endings. These films focus on the idea that life gives you unexpected obstacles to overcome and more often than not, the ending will be far from perfect–far from a “perfectly ever after.” Pixar endings show the ability to accept and persevere in tough situations, and that can be transferred to reality. Like the films Toy Story and Monsters, Inc., Turning Red does not promise a perfectly happy ending, but it does promise that people (even toys and monsters) can change and that everything will eventually work itself out. Watching Turning Red made me feel, for a lack of better words, “seen.” I felt represented not just culturally but also emotionally, and I am excited for the future of filmmaking.
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