‘Turning Red’ Review: The Groundbreaking Red-Furred Monster

Lorrie Solonynka

An eccentric Asian teenager turns into a red panda when faced with strong emotions: even the premise takes you aback. The animated Disney/Pixar ‘Turning Red’ coming-of-age film released on Disney+ on March 11th, takes many firsts that has shaken its viewers.

It’s the first Pixar feature directed solely by a woman, Domee Shi, who is well known for her film “Bao,” which took home the 2019 Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film (Global News). ‘Turning Red’ is set in early-2000s Toronto, Canada, where Shi grew up, it is also the first Pixar film set in such a location. The film follows Meilin “Mei” Lee (Rosalie Chiang), a thirteen-year-old Chinese girl who transforms into a giant red panda whenever she is overcome with intense feelings because of an ancient matrilineal Chinese curse. 

The “gross red monster,” as Meilin calls herself whenever she takes on the panda form, leads to both purposeful and unintended results. Being a surprisingly touching metaphor for adolescence and puberty, it makes it the heart of the action, with period and celebrity crush references, and conversations surrounding the attractiveness of popular singers and a local teen who works at a convenience store. The film is a depiction of how Meilin adjusts to her new bodily functions around her friends and her strict, controlling mother, Ming (Sandra Oh).  

The film has a lot of great themes. It encourages self-control, courage, compassion, and teamwork. It centers around realistic family issues, such as the importance of having honest conversations about puberty to the dangers of lying and keeping secrets, the need for both close friends and trusted adults, and the struggle of finding the balance between meeting parental expectations with friendships and newfound interests. This movie is a great opportunity for families to engage in discussions with their kids (when found appropriate for them) about parental and familial expectations, teenage rebellion, and becoming your person and how there are smart ways and bad ways to do so. 

This film is great for kids ages eight and up, but especially for parents or parents-to-be. Mei and Ming’s dynamic is in some ways universal; a lot of resemblances are found between the over-controlling behavior of Ming and many parents in real life. Parents should watch the film and wonder which character they resemble. Would they rather have a kid who trusts and talks to them or one who sneaks around? A lot of parents lack knowledge of the importance of communication, and how it is possible to do so in a way that is not harsh. Sometimes all it takes is talking about it beforehand and laying out the reasons why it shouldn’t be done. 

Viewers don’t need to be Chinese, women, girls, or Canadian, to relate to the story; the themes and metaphors apply to everyone who has or has yet to experience the bittersweetness and angst of transforming from a child to a teen. As the first Disney cartoon to talk openly about periods, ‘Turning Red’ is a truly remarkable, progressive film.