I remember what it was like being a 13 year-old-girl. I fawned over celebrities (Chris Pine specifically from “Star Trek,” you will always be my first love), wearing the brightest clothing (I swear Disney channel made those hideous neon leggings look cute) and all around being the coolest teenager-which-is-basically-an-adult ever. But of course, as most of us know, 13 is also the age that most girls especially cringe at when flipping back to their memories, and if you’ve cringed at any of the things that I’ve mentioned, then you can see why! For some bizarre reason, there’s nothing cringier or weirder than a 13 year old girl exploring 13 year old girl interests which, yes, includes getting moon-eyed over unattainable stars and wearing clashy clothing. Thirteen is simply not the age where girls are celebrated. But “Turning Red,” the latest Disney-Pixar movie, challenges all of that, and I am incredibly happy that it did.
For those who haven’t either watched or caught up on all the Twitter discourse about this film, “Turning Red” follows Mei Lee (Rosalie Chiang), a 13-year-old girl whose already chaotic pubescent life is overturned when she turns into a giant red panda. According to Mei’s mother Ming (Sandra Oh), who has gone through a similar process, this giant red panda-ification is hereditary, a gift that was blessed by an ancestor. Now, Mei needs to wait for an entire month before she can get rid of this red panda-ification forever. In the meantime, Mei just needs to keep her emotions under control—so long as she keeps them under control, she can remain human. If she gets too excited, however, poof! She’s back to Red Panda Mode.
Now, don’t let this comedic premise fool you. Like any Pixar and Disney collaborative film, “Turning Red” delivered such a poignant message about growing pain and more specifically, the growing pains that are specific to Asian immigrant families. Like many Asian immigrant parents, Mei’s mother is incredibly dedicated to her daughter’s betterment—but what I loved about this film is that instead of going down the typical “Tiger parent” representation of Asian families, “Turning Red” shows the nuances that come with Asian parenting. We see this most in how Ming handles the red panda situation. The movie reveals early on that this red panda transformation is a gift passed onto the women of the family. As someone who’s struggled with this transformation herself, Ming sees Mei’s own red panda situation as something that must be fixed. Like any parent, Ming wants to keep her daughter from going through a potentially painful process, but she goes about this with a rigidity and stubbornness that speaks so well to what it’s like to grow up with an Asian parent.
Because you see, it’s not just that Ming wants to protect Mei from this red panda situation—she also wants to keep Mei from all the ditzy things that comes with being an immature 13-year-old. Ming looks down on the boy band that Mei privately loves; Ming looks down on Mei’s much more relaxed friends Miriam (Ava Morse), Priya (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan) and Abby (Hyein Park). As such, Mei’s struggle between wanting her mother’s approval and also wanting to be a typical 13-year-old girl drives the whole movie, the red panda gift being an excellent metaphor for puberty and, ultimately, finding more of one’s own self in this growing period. It’s therefore impossible to not smile a little at Mei learning to love and control her red panda self, whether it be leaping over buildings in her red panda form or bouncing between her red panda and human forms when dancing with friends.
In the process, Mei learns to have the fun that every 13-year-old girl wants and deserves, and in the peak moment of the movie, Mei finally admits to her mother that she was never going to be the perfect daughter that her mother wants: “I’m sorry I’ll never be good enough for you!” she screams, which are hauntingly echoed by a past Ming crying about how “I’m never going to be good enough for [my mom]—or anyone.” And thus, underlying all of those themes about the messiness of being 13 with a mother who doesn’t quite understand why her perfect daughter’s changing, is the theme of how literally everyone has a messy side to them—a messy side that shatters the illusion of perfection that tortures so many people. So as Mei takes her mother’s hand, and as Ming finally apologizes to her daughter for ever making her feel like she needed to be perfect, “Turning Red” prods both characters into a direction of growing, whether as a 13-year-old or as a fully grown adult.
For that reason alone, “Turning Red” deserves all the recognition for making a film that’s so poignant in the complications that come with youth and families. This film treats all of these topics in such a complex, nuanced way that can have viewers laughing in one second, crying in the next. It’s honest and perhaps one of the best representations of girlhood and all of its highs, lows, epicness and, yes, even the cringiness. It’s perfect.