Pixar’s New Movie Shares the Ups and Downs of the Teenage Years (and Being a Red Panda)

Kristen Nemoto Jay
Commentary, Special to The Hawai‘i Herald


“Turning Red” poster (Screenshot photo from Domee Shi’s Instagram page)

There are so many things to discuss revolving around Disney and Pixar’s newest movie “Turning Red,” which I found to be one of the most relatable and refreshing of all the Disney and Pixar films (trust me, I’ve seen them all). From addressing puberty and sexuality to generational trauma and family dynamics, “Turning Red” touches a lot of bases that have had a problem with not being crossed in the past and I’m so happy it’s come up now, especially during these trying times for so many adolescents. To start, “Turning Red” is Disney and Pixar’s first feature-length film directed by an Asian woman and stars its second lead Asian character since the movie “Up,” which came out in 2009. Meilin “Mei” Lee (voice by Rosalie Chiang), the shero of the movie, is a 13-year-old Chinese Canadian, striving to find a balance between being an obedient daughter to her overbearing mother Ming (voice by Sandra Oh) while loving on her favorite boy band known as 4*Town with her three best friends. 

Meilin’s two worlds and identities collide when Mei’s mother embarrasses her by confronting a boy that she likes, showing him pictures that Mei drew of him within her notebook. The confrontation is torturous to watch as she begs her mother to stop, with no luck, yelling at the boy whom Ming claims to be corrupting her daughter’s innocence. Mei’s classmates gather around the commotion and laugh uncontrollably, stirring the pot of what has become a teenage-nightmare stew. Mei, being the submissive daughter that she’s known to be to her mother, keeps a steady face after the encounter and proceeds to tell her mother that everything is fine. Cut to that night in Mei’s room and she’s not fine. She’s of course mortified and cries herself to sleep.

The next day, after a nightmare filled with images of her crush and 4*Town, Mei wakes up to find that she’s no longer herself. She’s a big, hairy red panda! Confused and unaware of what has become her new body, Mei proceeds to scream and pout in agony. A relatable moment that I — and perhaps many women — specifically appreciated next was when Mei yells out in the bathroom “Ah! This isn’t happening!” to which Ming later gasps “but it’s too soon!” While Mei’s father hilariously and cautiously slips into the background, a surprising but thoughtful scene of Ming rushing into the bathroom to offer a multitude of menstrual pad options and remedies to cure what Ming believes to be Mei’s period follows, while Mei, still a red panda, hides behind the shower curtain and thanks her mom for the offer. Mei then finds herself poofing back into her human self once she calms down, her best friends surrounding her in a group hug is the only image in her mind that helps her morph back.

Without giving too much away, Mei continues to navigate her teenage self while being a red panda, which arises every time she gets too excited and can be fully fixed on the night of the red moon. Her parents also find out about her new ability to transform, which apparently runs in the family, a gift that was given to every female in order to protect them when they come of age. Throw in the mix of 4*Town coming to Toronto the same night as the red moon and Mei has to finally choose between the two worlds; one that her family approves of and the other that scares but excites her to learn and discover more.

Like many of the Disney and Pixar film plots, “Turning Red” did not disappoint in sharing a core and universal lesson, which in this case is of a mother and daughter finding a common ground in the messiness that is the teenage years. I found myself, and even my skeptical-don’t-care-for-Disney-too-much-husband, squirming at the cringe-worthy moments. One, in particular, was when Ming was stopped for trespassing on Mei’s school property by the school’s security officer. What happened next caused even my hubs to say “Oh (insert bad word here)” when Ming shouted out loud to Mei to tell him that it’s “Mommy!” and that she forgot her “pads!”

Me with Hanson boy band member Isaac after their concert held at The Republik in Honolulu on Sept. 26, 2019. (Photo taken by Iwi Jay)

There were so many instances in the film that made me flashback to my early years as a teenager. Mei’s love for 4*Town especially resonated with me. My 4*Town was Hanson. Yup, I said it. Hanson. Though my mother was nowhere near as strict as Ming, there were instances of disapproval for my obsession with the long-lock-Doc-Marten-wearing boy band when the entirety of my bedroom wall was covered in every teen magazine article and poster that I could get my hands on. It was when I requested to start plastering the posters on the ceiling because I ran out of vertical wall space, was when my mom put her foot down and gave me this “who are you?” confused look. I was crushed, not by her saying no to me being able to fall asleep by staring into Taylor Hanson’s eyes, but because I felt, at least just in that instance, that I had become someone my mother had disapproved of. Granted that was the one and only time I felt like my own version of a “red scary monster” within my family, I can relate — and probably all those who’ve gone through puberty — to the movie’s central theme of what it feels like to not be understood.

The heavy emphasis on the “P” within the “PG” rating for the movie is suggested for those moments of sexuality and puberty but also for scenes of generational trauma that can arise within family dynamics. In the end, Mei meets Ming’s younger self and finally understands why her mother has become the way that she is. Ming’s mother, Mei’s grandmother, recognizes the hardships in which her teachings have been carried through and finally learns how to embrace the women that are her daughter and granddaughter.

Overall, I thought the movie was enjoyable, filled with relevant, quirky, fun and heartwarming moments. The fact that it was so specific to a character like Mei — who is, according to the director Domee Shi, the reincarnation of herself growing up — makes this movie even more of a rare gem to witness. Too often are we, the general public, forced-fed media stories, particularly to White, male-centric, cisgender characters. “Turning Red” was a breath of fresh air with a mixture of ethnicities and age groups, all different yet relatable due to everyone’s need to want to be themselves despite what is expected of them. I want to show this movie to my daughter one day. Hopefully, it will help with any “red scary monster” moments. It happens to all of us, but this time she’ll have more than pads and music to help her poof back into her old self; whoever or whatever that may be.   


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