Film: Turning Red
Director: Domee Shi
Where to Watch: Disney +
Why it Made the List:
Domee Shi first came into our lives through a small, plump bao bun in her Oscar-winning animated short film, "Bao." Now she's back with her feature film directorial debut, becoming the first Asian American woman to direct a Pixar feature. The film is also the first Pixar film to boast an all-woman creative leadership team. "Turning Red" sets a new tone for Pixar movies. Packed with notes of early-2000's nostalgia teen angst, and a sprinkle of catchy boy band tunes, this film explores the complicated relationship between mothers and daughters.
Despite the fact that I have now become a 4Townie, the fictional boy band's music is not the only thing from "Turning Red" that is "never not on my mind" (oh my, oh my). This film is a movie about growing up but is more than a typical coming-of-age story. Because growing up is more than changes to your body and emotional roller coasters. It can also mean growing apart -- growing apart from that toy you used to love, apart from that sweater that comforted you, apart from the cartoons you woke up early for on Saturday mornings, and even apart from people in your life.
The film follows Meilin (Mei) Lee, a spunky 13-year-old Chinese girl from Toronto. She loves math, her friends, 4*Town, and her mother. But things change when puberty strikes (in the form of turning into a giant, fluffy red panda whenever her emotions get the best of her). Mei is suddenly into boys and hanging out with her friends takes priority over hanging out with her mom.
As her mother, Ming Lee grapples with the fact that her daughter is growing up and clings to the little girl she's always known her to be. I'm sure any parent has difficulty navigating their children's new adolescent personalities. However, Ming still wants to be there for her daughter, whether it is in the form of providing her with feminine products or helping Mei keep her panda in check. But Ming also blames Mei's friends as the source of her daughter's newfound rebellious behavior and fails to see her daughter for who she is now.
Things take a turn when Mei finally decides to break the rules so she and her friends can see 4*Town in concert. Besides turning into the panda at will (which she is advised not to do), Mei lies about going to a boy/girl party where Panda Mei is meant to make an appearance. In a fit of rage, Panda Mei attacks a boy and her mother blames her friends for the incident. When her friends beg for Mei to defend them, Mei silently turns to her mother, afraid of being seen as anything but the "perfect daughter." Upon going home with her mother, Mei drops her Tamagotchi - a symbol of responsibility which of course, increases as one grows older. Although at he very beginning of the film, Mei boasts that she is practically an adult, it is clear there is still a lot of growing up to do.
The film's themes of mother and daughter are obvious and perhaps one that a wide audience can relate to. However, the idea that a daughter must be perfect in the eyes of their mother (or father) is a common and true occurrence for many, especially those of an Asian background (i.e. tiger moms). While I do not consider my own mother to be a tiger mom, I do recall my teenage years as being quite bumpy and it took us a minute to navigate them together. I remember going to a school dance instead of celebrating her birthday when I was about Mei's age. And looking back, I did not have fun at said dance at all. In college, I put a lot of pressure on myself because I thought my parents would be upset with me if I changed career paths. But it turned out they were understanding and supportive. As an adult, I still yearn for their approval and want to make them proud, but I don't think I let that prevent me from still living my own life. It is amazing the hold our parent's approval has on us. The desire to be seen as a good child who made the right decisions and be told you did a good job. Who doesn't like a gold star after all?
In the end, Ming and Mei learn to accept each other for who they are. Through their pandas, they are able to understand one another. For Ming, the panda was something she was ashamed of and her emotions about her own mother were so bottled up. For Mei, she embraces her panda and accepts it as a part of her. Their relationship isn't the same as it was pre-panda, but how can it be? The person Mei was doesn't exist anymore. The new Mei is growing up and the best Ming can do is grow along side her.
The first time I watched this movie, I didn't know how to feel. I felt the animation was a regression for Pixar and that the story line was okay. I didn't think the story applied to me directly because my relationship with my mother wasn't as similar, but there were still many elements I related to. But once I watched the "Making Of" special and understood where Domee Shi and Rona Liu (Production Designer) were coming from in terms of design and story, I saw the film in a different light. The animation is a nod to early-2000s (anime and "chunky cute") and the story is one anyone can relate to (contrary to the critics).
And while many critics think "Turning Red" touches on taboo topics such as menstruation and daydreaming about boys, I think they need to look back on their teenage years.
Part of the reason why these topics are "taboo" is because we don't talk about them openly and never see people on TV and movies go through it. For years, I was so demoralized from carrying feminine products in my bag or talking about my menstrual pains to my friends. But now as an adult, I have accepted that literally half the world's population goes through this natural process and it shouldn't be stigmatized.
I've heard from people of all ages, male and female, that they enjoyed this movie. Everyone has the experience of growing up and going through their teenage years. Everyone goes through puberty. "Turning Red" just happens to be one of the first animated movies I've seen address it so candidly. And its candor is one of its greatest appeals.
Small Business Shout Out:
Today, I would like to give a shout out to Sketcheroos! Sketcheroos is owned by Kristine, a Memphis-based illustrator and doodler who makes cute stickers, stationery. and key chains! She also makes items by hand such as her screen printed totes and clay magnets. Check out her shop here!
Reminder! I am matching donations for every like on this post and on Instagram. This year, we will be donating to CAPE - Coalition of Asian Pacifics in Entertainment.
If You Liked This, You Might Like:
Bao on Disney +
Kung Fu Panda 2 on HBOMax (another Asian woman director in Animation)
The Joy Luck Club on Roku