Turn Into Your True Self With Pixar’s ‘Turning Red’

On March 11, Disney+ brought about a delightful animated feature that will get more than just children to revel in. Lively colors, rousing music and contagious playfulness. Take my hand and let me carry you through a story told time and time again: the coming-of-age tale. 

The first concept introduced as the movie kicks off points to one keyword: family. The main character, 13-year-old Meilin (Rosalie Chiang), puts her parents’ approval above all else. Which sounds good, right? But what if one goes so far in honoring their parents that they forget to honor themself?

Along with being utterly filial to her parents, Meilin claims to “make [her] own moves.” Nevertheless, this appears to be just an act. Meilin puts up a front to divert herself from what’s keeping her from soaring. Her mother, Ming (“Grey’s Anatomy”’s Sandra Oh), is overprotective and extremely strict. Following a series of stressful and embarrassing events she caused, Meilin wakes up one morning looking like a panda. A giant, fluffy, red panda. It turns out that this mystical ability was passed down by her ancestor Sun Yee, who was granted the gift to change into a gigantic red panda to protect her children and village during wartime. When Meilin contracts her gift (which she views as a now-inconvenience), Ming’s hold on her only gets tighter. While this doesn’t nullify Ming from having Meilin’s best interests at heart, consequently, Meilin is urged to lock her true self away as it does not match her mother’s beliefs.

Meilin (Rosalie Chiang) and Ming (Sandra Oh). Courtesy of Pixar Animation Studios. 

“Turning Red” deftly highlights that the incommensurable love parents have towards their children does not prevent them from making mistakes. That is when an important distinction occurs in Meilin’s life. Miriam (Ava Morse), Abby (Hyein Park) and Priya (Netflix “Never Have I Ever”’s Maitreyi Ramakrishnan), Meilin’s ride-or-die possy, are the ones to stand by her for who she really is. Family often holds high expectations, while friends are there no matter what. Therefore, they unknowingly soothe her and enable her not to lose herself in all the noise.

For the shift to happen, Meilin must find a way to harness her emotions. At first, she struggles with reaching this state, as her wide range of emotions tend to take over and allow her to change involuntarily. As this process mirrors puberty, witnessing Meilin’s squad unconditionally have her back is deeply endearing. Admittedly, Meilin is the one who must muster the courage to dare to be herself. However, having the right mentor figures around her is also of utmost significance. Both her friends and father play that crucial role in helping Meilin find her way when she is confused. 

On another note, director Domee Shi aptly depicts ethnic diversity, particularly faithful to cosmopolitan Toronto, where the story takes place. Shi chose to stage the perspective of a teenage girl in the very city she grew up in to introduce an unapologetically autobiographical narrative that pays tribute to growing up with two distinctive identities. Besides Meilin being of Chinese descent, her friends all encapsulate multiracialism through various ravishing shades of the world. What is more, the inclusivism painted in the feature comprises a spectrum of body shapes, conveying that there is no “standard.” Viewers are served with a palette of heterogeneity in an institutionalizing manner, instead of the usual sacralized diversity. 

Priya (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan), Miriam (Ava Morse) and Abby (Hyein Park). Courtesy of Pixar Animation Studios.

The motion picture industry undoubtedly bears considerable power to influence audiences. In this Pixar movie that’s primary target is children, its moral holds a beneficial message. Similar to Disney’s “Encanto,” the takeaway is to let one’s self flourish. And the foreseeable ending does not hinder adults from savoring the invigorating energy that radiates from the young-spirited souls. We just can’t help but relish having our sense of childlike wonder summoned.

On a thrilling note, “Turning Red” is the first Pixar full-length feature film directed solely by a woman and that has an exclusively female lead team. Director Shi, producer Lindsey Collins and production designer Rona Liu also bring forth the first Pixar movie led by an Asian protagonist. On a musical note, “4*Town,” the Backstreet Boys-like fictional boy band that hypes Meilin and her friends, is Pixar’s first boy band. The soundtrack features three original songs by Billie Eilish and Finneas O’Connell. “Nobody Like U” is the upbeat song that runs through your mind all day and that everybody knows. “U Know What’s Up” is characterized as a “confidence booster” by its creators. And of course, no boy band worthy of the name exists without a love ballad, and “4*Town” is no exception. “1 True Love” is the one.

Throughout Meilin’s journey to self-discovery, several topics are addressed that are typically not discussed in children’s films — such as menstruation and hormones. They are explored in an explicit, yet un-shocking way. Further, Meilin nods at the feminist slogan “My Body, My Choice” when claiming “my panda, my choice.” Diversity, in its own right, stands tall in a normalizing, non-atypical way. Meanwhile, embracing change ends up being a stimulating rite of passage for Meilin. And keeping her roots engraved becomes a personal choice, not a stifling family heirloom anymore. Boy band fever dreams, Tamagotchis and flip phones take viewers back to 2002, promising Millenials will relate to this universal Pixar movie freckled with hints of Japanese anime.

In a personal capacity, I don’t watch animated films that frequently. For this reason, “Turning Red” was undeniably a breath of fresh air. The characters are extremely relatable and lovely. The family v.s friends comparison deeply resonated with me, and its depiction was masterfully applied. Many easter eggs were put in the movie as well, including one for Pixar’s next movie in line “Lightyear,” which will keep you on your toes. In the meantime, several motivational phrases are slipped in throughout “Turning Red,” and noticing them won’t fail to give viewers a faint smile. The movie closes with Meilin not only owning her weirdness but celebrating it, inviting the audience to do so as well. “Turning Red” is a delectable and cheerful feature that holds present-day themes. The level of pathos is no joke, so it is likely to leave you with teary eyes.

“Turning Red” is available to stream on Disney+.

By Sourour Elfourti

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