Turning Red

(4/5) Turning Red is a resplendent, multi-layered film about familial ties, growing up, and the beauty of friendship that is bound to resonate with everyone who watches it.


Agustin Noguera Villegas

3/25/20222 min read

Turning Red, directed by Domme Shi, produced by Pixar Studios and distributed by Disney, tells the story of Mei Lee (Rosalie Chiang), a Chinese Canadian girl whose life is turned upside down when she finds out that she will turn into a giant red panda if she experiences strong emotions. Mei, now tasked with a generational secret, must find a way to balance her private and familial duties with her public life, as she and her best friends raise money to see their favorite boy band 4*Town in concert - by charging her classmates for red panda pictures and merchandise with her trademark Red Panda.

The film is a beautiful and vibrant multi-layered story of growing up and coming to terms with one’s own generational trauma, choosing to heal, and self-actualization. At first glance, one’s instinct is to read Mei’s transformation into the Red Panda as a metaphor for entering puberty and menstruation. But in the first 15 minutes, the film addresses this head on when Mei’s mother, Ming Lee (Sandra Oh), asks “did the red peony bloom?” while bringing ibuprofen and pads into the bathroom, where Mei has retreated after turning into the panda for the first time. Mei soon finds out that the transformation is generational, as Ming tells her all women in their family have passed down the power of the red panda. To which Mei asks, “why didn’t you warn me?” And to which Ming replies, “I thought I had more time. You’re just a child! I thought, ‘if I watched you like a hawk, I’d see the signs and be able to prepare.’”

And it’s in this scene where the film seeks to capture film magic. In Frozen-style (2013), Mei is persistently told to conceal, don’t feel in order to not release the red panda; to keep her emotions in check; to hide that which is not desirable; to hide that which makes one stand out. And it is important to mention that the Lee family is, as Ming puts it, one that has chosen “to come to a new world,” which could be read as the story of a family that has migrated to a new country, where assimilation is needed to not be othered, to not be marginalized, to survive. However, the panda is inherently Mei’s. It is a part of her. 

When I first read the logline of this film, I was scared of the protagonist-of-color turning into an animal or non-human pipeline. The list of Hollywood films turning characters of color into things or animals is very long; Brother Bear (2003), Princess and the Frog (2009), Spies in Disguise (2019), and Soul (2020) to just name a few. Naturally, I was apprehensive. But unlike most of the aforementioned films, the red panda is Mei. It is a facet of her personality and a power that has been bestowed upon her by the women in her family, including her mom. But unlike her mom, Mei is bound to embrace her inner panda – and not just because she needs it in order for her and her friends to attend the 4*Town concert.

 Turning Red is the first Pixar film directed by a woman - fact that is worth noting in the studio’s thirty-plus history. Director Domme Shi returned to Pixar after winning the Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film for Bao (2018), a short also produced by the company. Shi and screenwriter Julia Cho have crafted a fun and triumphant story about generational trauma, healing and growing up. Beautifully directed in a kaleidoscope of pastel colors, and driven by a phenomenal ensemble of voice actors, Turning Red is utterly fantastic. And it is a film whose beauty and magic ought to be the main talking points in conversation, especially after it has claimed its place as the frontrunner for Best Animated Feature for next year’s awards season.

**Turning Red is currently streaming on Disney+.