Film & Television

Pixar’s ‘Turning Red’: Why Some are Seeing Red

The new Pixar film, Turning Red, has earned a mostly positive reception, with a 95 percent “Fresh” rating on critics aggregator Rotten Tomatoes. It’s a fairly contemporary (taking place in the early 2000s) story about a Chinese-Canadian girl, her family, and friends, and includes terrific animation, catchy music, jokes that will resonate with grownups as well as children, and a happy ending with some nice take-away messages.

I say “mostly positive” because there is a small but extremely vocal minority out there finding a litany of faults with it. According to social media naysayers, this animated feature dares to depict …

– Girls disobeying their parents

– Girls going to coed parties

– Girls fantasizing about older boys

– Girls listening to contemporary music

And, perhaps the most egregious inclusion of all — you may want to sit down — a girl getting her period for the first time.

“Oh no. Did the red peony bloom?” Ming asks her daughter Meilin what must be the most poetic euphemism for menses ever uttered.

Alas, the “curse” that most young women experience at about Mei Mei’s age is one of mythic proportion in her particular family. Generations ago, her maternal ancestor was left alone with her children, the men of the village having gone to war. She prayed to be strong enough to protect her home and family and was granted that wish in a rather over-sized and fuzzy way. She became a giant red panda, and that blessing (or curse, depending on whether or not you want to fit in with other eighth graders) has been passed down to all the family’s girls.

Besides the obvious menstrual metaphor (Mei Mei on waking up in her altered state shrieks, “I’m a big, red monster!”), the panda represents every heightened emotion: anger, lust, joy, embarrassment — especially, embarrassment — that a girl might feel as she heads into the awkward, hormonal minefield that is adolescence. In fact, the only way to control the panda is to breathe deep, tap into your inner Zen, and let those pesky puberty emotions fall away.

Easier said than done. Especially for a 13-year-old girl.

The panda can also be banished more permanently through a creepy ritual performed under a “blood moon.” And here is where the mother-child conflict comes to a head. Ming, her husband, and a coven of female relatives who’ve flown in to help Mei Mei, urge her to prepare for the ceremony and kiss her panda self goodbye. Mei Mei, however, with the support of her endearing geek squad, has started to see an upside to the whole life-as-a-giant-stuffed-animal thing. She’s considered adorable rather than scary, and she becomes a celebrity of sorts, enabling the girls to raise enough money for tickets to “4-Town,” the dreamy boy band coming to Toronto the very night of the blood moon.

If Mei Mei is the first “Disney Princess” (Pixar was acquired by the “House of Mouse” in 2006) to get her period, Turning Red represents other firsts just as exciting. It’s the first Pixar feature solely directed by a woman, Domee Shi, who started her career as a storyboarding intern a decade ago, worked on Inside Out and Toy Story 4, and earned an Oscar for her 2018 short film Bao.

As Shi explained to The Boston Globe, “We wanted to make a cuter version of The Incredible Hulk. It’s hairy and awkward and red — red like menstruation, red like the color you turn when you’re angry or embarrassed, or crushing after a boy or girl at school. It was definitely the color I felt like I was most of the time I was a tween. It just felt like the natural form that Mei’s puberty took.”

Both Shi and her co-screenwriter, Julia Cho, wanted to examine the mother-daughter relationship, which they felt was particularly strong and respectful, but also fraught with tension, in the Chinese-American community. Cho explains that aspect of the movie as “the transition from going from a girl whose mom is your whole world to a young woman who’s trying to learn to be independent.” She laughs that while they were making the film, “We would joke that we went through that in our 20s. Here’s precocious Mei doing it at 13. It took me much longer.”

Shi was a bit apprehensive when she pitched the idea to Pixar and its “old white men” decision-makers. But, to her surprise, it was green-lighted to the tune of $175 million.

Aside from its groundbreaking women-led creative team, feminist story and messages, Turning Red is great fun to watch. It moves quickly (as most Pixar features do) and benefits from the voice talents of Golden Globe–winner and Asian activist Sandra Oh as Ming and relative newcomer Rosalie Chiang as Mei Mei. Original music is by Grammy-winner Billie Eilish and her brother Finneas O’Connell.

Aside from the animé-inspired sight gag of a giant red panda (cute but clumsy) running across Toronto rooftops, accidentally demolishing a school and eventually the arena where “4-Town” is performing, Turning Red does a lovely — and loving — job of celebrating Chinese-American culture. Mei Mei’s schoolmates are racially diverse and (whether their parents or the aforementioned social media critics agree) generally respectful of each other and each other’s cultures. Yes, you might have to explain what menstruation is to younger viewers, although by no means does the film depict it graphically or even in much detail. But shouldn’t we be doing that anyway? The stigma of “the red peony” is ages-old and crosses most religious and cultural lines. But, given that it’s experienced by roughly half the world’s population, it might be time to retire it.

As Shi explains, “It’s about time. I wanted with this movie just to give it to that 13-year-old me, who was searching for media like this, was searching for movies and stories that could help explain what was going on with her body and her emotions.”

All in all, the most important message to take away from Turning Red (besides the fact that “4-Town” is the BEST BAND EVER!) is that it’s okay to change, to feel strong emotions, to take the time to become your true self — even if the process is a little messy.

Turning Red is available to stream on Disney+.


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