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New Disney film normalizes adolescent struggles


Turning Red.jpg

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     On March 11, 2022, Disney released their latest Pixar-animated film “Turning Red” to widespread acclaim. The film, set in 2002-era Toronto, Canada, follows 13-year-old Chinese-Canadian teenager Meilin “Mei” Lee as she navigates the complexities of puberty, her deeply loving but severely overprotective mother and an unusual quirk: she transforms into a large red panda whenever she becomes emotional as a result of a familial blessing.

     Now, it’s important to note something: I am far from the target audience. As a white-as-can-be American male, a film about navigating the complexities of life as a Chinese-Canadian middle school girl is not something that I heavily relate to. However, that did not prevent me from both enjoying this movie and appreciating its unwavering commitment to reality.

     Directed and largely written by Chinese-Canadian filmmaker Domee Shi, who based much of the story on her own adolescent years, “Turning Red” is (save for the magical red panda element) beautifully realistic. Shi fully disregards the barriers that often prevent movies aimed at younger audiences from truly showing the issues that many people face in their childhood, and as a result, “Turning Red” is a film that shares an equal amount of cringeworthy and truly heartwarming moments. 

     Though never explicitly stated, many of the film’s central elements and themes are clear representations of puberty and its associated difficulties. After realizing that she has begun crushing

on a local boy, Mei wakes up one morning to realize that every emotional outburst she has transforms her into a giant red panda. Her mother, misunderstanding her hiding daughter’s complaints about being a “red monster”, assumes that she has experienced her first period and returns with painkillers, a hot water bottle and boxes upon boxes of menstrual pads. That kind of scene has never been shown in a Disney film before, but it’s utterly realistic and so important for young girls to see, as menstruation is a natural part of life for women that is so needlessly stigmatized. 

     I also find it quite interesting that, in most senses of the word, the film has no antagonist. Ming, Mei’s deeply devoted but often overly strict mother, is obviously the most antagonistic character in “Turning Red”. However, it’s clear from the beginning that she only acts in this manner because she wants what’s best for her daughter and doesn’t stop to consider that they have different priorities in life. Indeed, Shi has often stated in interviews for the movie that the film’s central conflict between Mei and her mother was based on her own childhood, as she, like many other children, struggled to make her mother proud due to her extremely high expectations.

     Though the plot elements and theme of this fairly revolutionary movie naturally take precedence in just about any review, I think it’s also very important to note that the film itself is a work of art. Colorful, lively and brightly animated, the look of “Turning Red” fits Shi’s description of it as an “Asian tween fever dream” quite well. It’s full of the idealized excitement that younger children and teenagers often view the world with, so it was a welcome trip down nostalgia lane for me.

     Overall, I genuinely enjoyed “Turning Red”. Though the plot may have been somewhat simpler than some of Pixar’s masterpieces, I still think it deserves true acclaim for its commitment to giving an utterly realistic depiction of the complexities and challenges of growing up. As Mei says in the film’s closing lines, “we've all got a messy, loud, weird part of ourselves hidden away”. Like Shi, it’s my hope that “Turning Red” will show younger audiences that it’s okay to let that shine.

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