Rosalie Chiang plays Meilin "Mei" Lee in Turning Red (Pixar)
Last summer, Disney released a Pixar movie that was a very specific tale of childhood that used its fantastical tale as an allegory for growing up, was set in the recent past and used a healthy dose of ethnic stereotypes for much of its humor, albeit affectionately given the creator mined their own culture for the story. That film was Luca, which told the story of a sea creature who wanted only to be a real boy, and delved into the complexities of male childhood friendship in a way that few films bother to do. It was not the most ambitious of Pixar’s films and the Italian stereotypes were often a bit much — although this was before Jared Leto in House of Gucci redefined just how much an Italian stereotype could be — but in retrospect what Luca seemed to lack has faded away in comparison to what it actually accomplished. Turning Red covers some of the same territory. It’s a fantasy that’s an allegory about growing up, although this time it substitutes a middle-school girl of Chinese origin in early 2000s Torontofor the Italian sea monsters in 1960s Genoa.
Mei Lee (voiced by Rosalie Chiang) is a typical thirteen year old girl during the late stages of the boyband era whose main desire is getting to see her favorite group, 4*Town, in concert with her group of friends. Her mother (voiced by Sandra Oh), though, only wants her little girl to focus on her studies and ignore those facets of life that are unavoidable for thirteen year old girls. One day, Mei Lee discovers that when she becomes too emotional, she turns into a red panda, which happens to women in their family because of a family curse. The curse can only be lifted by performing a ritual on a specific night, which happens to be when 4*Town performs in Toronto.
Turning Red uses Mei Lee turning into a panda as a metaphor for puberty, and this subtext frequently verges into text. When she first turns into a panda and hides in the bathroom, her mother in fact assumes that she is having her period for the first time. Hearing references to menstruation in a Disney movie might feel novel, but the studio actually released a short film called The Story of Menstruation in 1946, so it is not unprecedented. This makes the film into a story as specifically for teenage girls as Luca was for boys, often in ways that are accurate yet intensely irritating at the same time.
Director Domee Shi, who won an Oscar for the Pixar short film Bao several years ago, quite obviously took a great deal of inspiration from her own life to create the film. It is not a coincidence that the film is set in 2002, which happens to be the year Shi turned thirteen. The film delves into Shi’s own cultural heritage, and like Luca, sometimes to the point of excess. The women in Mei Lee’s family may turn into pandas, but her mother is a Tiger Mom through and through. This gives Turning Red a certain specificity, while at the same time limiting its focus. The intricacies of early 2000s boy bands may be lost on many people twenty years later, especially since N*Sync and Backstreet Boys haven’t had a nostalgia-fueled resurrection quite yet; right now, the upsurge in Britney Spears nostalgia essentially precludes a Justin Timberlake reappraisal.
It is easy to see people appreciating Turning Red for handling delicate subject matter and for representation and inclusivity. This is definitely the first Pixar movie to feature a Chinese-Canadian middle-school girl as the lead. And girls should recognize and empathize with Mei Lee’s relationships with her mother and friends, although obviously not the fantastical elements of the story. Some of these experiences might not be a joy to relive, though, since middle school is probably one of the most unbearable periods in life. But it could be worse, as Turning Red shows: starting to menstruate might be hard, but it’s nothing compared to turning into a giant red panda.
Now in theaters and streaming on Disney+
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