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It’s hard to imagine what Pixar executives were thinking when director Domee Shi pitched her latest idea for a new animated film: a quirky, boyband-loving Chinese-Canadian teen who, when her emotions become too much, transforms into a giant red panda. How they were convinced doesn’t matter much now– The film, Turning Red is yet another Pixar triumph. 

Set in 2002 in Toronto, Canada, “Turning Red” follows 13-year old Meilin Lee (Rosalie Chiang), who introduces herself as someone who “does what she wants, says what she wants, 24/7, 365.” The audience soon finds out that this isn’t exactly true– Meilin is constantly bailing on her friends’ plans and concealing her interests and desires to make sure she is the perfect daughter for her loving, but exceedingly overbearing mother, Ming Lee (voiced by the brilliant Sandra Oh). Mei’s world turns upside down when she wakes up one morning in the body of an eight-foot red panda. Just as Mei hides her real self and her interests from her mom, she hides her new form– until an embarrassment at school causes another explosive transformation. Her mother reluctantly explains that all the women in her family are blessed (or, if you ask her, cursed) with this “quirk”, where any strong emotions transform them into the fluffy beast, but there is a cure: a ritual that can only be performed during a Red Moon.

Meilin and her ride-or-die group of friends are huge fans of the boyband 4*Town, and Mei’s new panda conundrum helps her to embrace her wild and rebellious side. She and her friends concoct a plan to “hustle the panda”, selling photo ops and red panda-themed merchandise to raise the money to attend a 4*Town concert, all behind her mother’s back. In her disobedience, Meilin can find and embrace her true self, even the parts that aren’t perfect or pretty.

This animated adventure is nothing if not nostalgic, and not just for those who grew up in the early 2000s. Sure, the bright-colored bucket hats, Tamagotchis, and Backstreet Boy-Esque band craze are time period specific, but audience members who didn’t grow up during that time can still relate to the story and characters. Meilin and her friends mirror just about every 13-year old girl– a little quirky, a little cringy, and a lot emotional. 

Visually, the movie takes on a fun, vivid new style, a refreshing break away from the usual styles audiences have become used to. The city of Toronto is displayed beautifully as the diverse, colorful city it is. 4*Town, the band that serves as the subject of Meilin’s obsession, sings masterfully catchy songs written by music sensations and Grammy winners Billie Eilish and FINNEAS. Every character is endearing and unique, and let’s face it, there are few things cuter than a giant, fluffy red panda.

Turning Red is an artful allegory for the unpredictable challenges of navigating adolescence. Through the balance of humor and heart that Pixar has down to a science, and through the lens of the immigrant-family experience, the film manages to tackle coming of age, social hardship, and generational trauma all under a blanket of fluffy red fur. It hasn’t been without backlash– this is the first animated production to explicitly reference menstruation and some parents are not happy. There has been outrage over the themes of the movie, claiming it promotes disobeying your parents (in response, I challenge you to think of a Disney character who hasn’t disobeyed their parents), or that the main character being Chinese-Canadian makes her too “niche” to be relatable. Despite the anger, it’s provoked, Turning Red is bold and unapologetic in its confrontation with puberty and the stigma surrounding it. The real message the film promotes is authenticity and self-love– that you are beautiful and worthy, not in spite of your wild, loud, weird sides, but because of them.

Turning Red is now streaming on Disney+ .

Sierra is currently a freshman Film & Screen Studies major at Pace University in NYC. She loves movies, music, and all things pop culture. She is an Egyptian actor, writer, and artist and moved to New York City from Georgia.
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