When it comes to a story about coming-of-age, some things are just universal. Hormonal changes, body changes, a shift in mood and personality. Growing into being a teenager is hard, and it’s an experience that basically everyone remembers. But when it comes to growing pains, few have it as hard as Meilin Lee (Rosalie Chiang), a Chinese-Canadian who has been blessed/cursed with her family’s generational ability to turn into a giant red panda when entering into puberty.
Mei’s story is both a perfect metaphor for the hardships of growing up and also a loving tribute to what overcoming those struggles can offer. Before her transformation, she balances between being the perfect daughter to her Chinese mother while also being a regular 13-year-old girl who is obsessed with her favorite boy band. When we first meet Mei, she is hard working, studious, a bit nerdy, and friendly. Along with her friends Miriam (Ava Morse), Priya (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan), and Abby (Hyein Park), Mei is also a die hard fan of the boy band 4Town. Although the film is set in 2002 and 4Town is clearly modeled after the boy bands like Backstreet Boys and N’Sync, audiences today who have been swept up in the crazy of K-pop might find a kinship to the girls.
Oscar-winning director Domee Shi tells a story that hits all the best highlights of a good Pixar film. It’s funny, heartwarming, goofy, and emotionally devastating at times. I can’t speak for other people, but as a Chinese-American who grew up with a close relationship with my own very strict mother (one who literally shares Meilin’s name), the scenes of Mei with her mom Ming (Sandra Oh) hit ten times harder. Often times the relationship between a “tiger mom” and her child can come off one-dimensional or even abusive (granted, sometimes these relationships are actually abusive). But Shi balances the relationship perfectly. Yes, Ming is overbearing and old-fashioned, but you never doubt that her heart is in the right place.
Her first concern is her daughter. Little snippets like watching Ming and Mei make dumplings while watching a Chinese drama or Ming bringing Mei some fruit while she is studying are deeply personal experiences and ones that many Asian kids can relate to. Although this perspective might feel limiting to those who haven’t grown up in this culture, Turning Red only highlights an experience that many, many people around the world have experienced — after all Asians hold a global majority.
But beyond that, Mei’s experience is so charming because it is so personal. The physical embodiment of her emotions is a giant red panda, one she initially fears and is horrified by. But it’s through the acceptance by her friends and finding herself that she learns to embrace her inner panda. Turning Red is about a tumultuous time in a teenager’s life but it’s also about finding balance after overcoming that tumult. Mei should be able to both enjoy her youth with her friends and sing to 4*Town and help out with her parents and support them.
The nuance that comes with this story is one that can only be achieved by a creative team that is largely Asian. From the cultural practices to the interpersonal relationships, it’s impossible to capture these details if you haven’t lived them your entire life. Like her previous award-winning short Bao, Shi is able to show not only the toxicity and pressures of growing up under a stern parent but also the immense love and affection that comes with it. Similarly, her depiction of the diverse neighborhoods of Toronto is particularly moving. Making two of Mei’s friends also Asian also hit close to home. I had a friend group like Mei’s. Multicultural despite being perceived as monolithic.
Turning Red is so much more than just its connections to the culture though, and most of its highlights come when Mei is simply embracing who she is. She might be a little quirky, but she is unabashedly herself. Wildly confident and expressive, she’s someone who we immediately want to root for. Her journey, no matter how fantastical, feels familiar. There is so much to love when it comes to this film, but as a Chinese girl who similarly grew up in the throes of emotions during the early aughts, this film hit home and tops the charts as one of my favorite Pixar films to date. With heart, humor, and a deep understanding of the Chinese experience, Turning Red is deeply personal and that’s what makes it great.
Turning Red streams exclusively on Disney+ March 11th.