Turning Red: Awkward Adolescence on Screen

April 10, 2022 | Michelle Musili

Pixar films have taken us to new places throughout the studio’s 25 year history. We’ve seen the worlds of toys, fish, superheroes, and even the complexities of human emotions. With their latest effort, Pixar has delved into a dangerous world never before seen: the crushing awkward pain of puberty.

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Illustration by Michelle Musili

Turning Red is an animated film produced by Disney-Pixar, directed by Domee Shi that was released to Disney+ in March 2022. The film follows Meilin Lee, a 13-year-old girl attempting to balance her own desires with those of her family. Things get a little complicated when a family curse causes her to become a giant red panda anytime she experiences strong emotions. 


From the opening, Turning Red makes it abundantly clear that the film is unapologetically bombastic and exuberant. We’re introduced to Mei through a zippy title sequence and her announcing that she is now an adult at the ripe age of 13—a level of humorous precociousness that can only come from an overachieving middle schooler. The cutesy character designs, hyper expressive animation, and bright early 2000s RnB music propels the audience into the vivid inner world of Mei from the very first second of the film.


Even before the main plotline kicks off, one can very easily understand and relate to Mei’s core character traits. She deeply craves her mother’s approval and works hard to earn it, even at the expense of her own interests—such as boy bands or crushes. In turn, Mei’s mother sees her as perfect and blames any perceived faults on Mei’s friends or surroundings. Eventually, this all comes to a head as Mei seeks more independence, coming to realize that her friends and her own desires are deeply important to her as well.


Mei’s transformation can easily be seen as an allegory for puberty. The parallel is addressed in the movie when Mei’s mother, Ming, assumes Mei has started her period and barges into the bathroom with a large stash of pads. Mei’s panda is released whenever she experiences extreme emotion, whether it’s anger, joy, or sadness. The metaphor is apt for the feeling of going through puberty, and the experience of going through puberty is one that isn’t often discussed in such a  way. Emotions are suddenly incredibly high, and you start to crave independence and agency in ways that almost feel out of your control.


The great thing about the plot device of the panda is that it doesn’t have to be a one-to-one metaphor; it’s simply relating an experience to something fantastical. Ming references that, to their ancestors, the panda was a gift intended to provide protection but became problematic after they immigrated to Canada. For me, this referenced the need to assimilate to some degree when immigrating to the West and a loss of connection to parts of your culture. Others have also seen it as representative of the pressures felt by immigrant families to be seen as “model minorities,” to have incredible composure to the point of repression. 


The central dynamic in the film is one of generational trauma and repression. Ming hurt her own mother with her panda, and their relationship is still strained because of it. This leads Ming to be a very protective, at times overbearing, mother who puts a lot of pressure on Mei. Mei has internalized this pressure; at the beginning of the film, she is unable to see her mother as at fault for anything. But by the climax, she’s able to assert her independence and prioritize her own interests. In a particularly beautiful scene, Mei encounters her mother as a child in an alternate realm, crying over her strained relationship with her own mother. Mei comes to understand that her mother is also scared and comforts her as they walk out of the forest together.


This scene encapsulates the emotional core of Turning Red and is one of my favorite parts. The film is deeply empathetic but also exuberant and embraces early adolescence in all its awkward glory. In the face of a media landscape that has ignored and reduced the “tween” demographic, it's fun to see a film that not only speaks directly to that demographic but also connects to the weird 13-year-old in us all. The movie is unabashedly girly, another refreshing element to see, as teenage girls are often derided for any interests they have as a group.


We’re seeing an interesting trend in Disney and Pixar animated films. As the older directors are taking a backseat in the filmmaking process, we’re presented with fresh, bright stories told by new voices. Domee Shi’s work in this film feels incredibly personal to her. It feels like we’re getting a peek into her lived experience of being a teenager in the early ‘00s. We’re beginning to see children’s media grapple with the idea of generational trauma and humanizing parents as people who are just as broken as anyone else. We’re seeing different cultures depicted and explored with love and care. As an animation fan, as a child of immigrant parents, this is amazing to see, and I look forward to the future of children’s animation.