I’m a little late to be writing about Pixar’s most recent film, Turning Red, but I worry that its straight-to-streaming release may have resulted in this extraordinary film not garnering all of the attention and praise that it deserves. Now, of course, it’s no surprise that the best stories often work for any audience, but for a film whose themes are so overtly pitched towards young teen girls, I was astounded by how much Turning Red resonated with me. Throughout, I was very clearly reminded of my own experiences contending with the bubbling cauldron of emotions that come from being that age, as well as my current experiences watching my own younger children come into their own emotions. For so specific and fantastical a story, it’s impressive how universal this film manages to feel.
Meilin Lee is a thirteen-year-old girl living in Toronto with her mother and father. Her family runs the Lee Family Temple in Toronto, dedicated to honoring their family’s ancestors, especially their most revered ancestor, Sun Yee. Sun Yee was “a scholar, a poet, and defender of animals. She dedicated her life to the creatures of the forest. Especially the red panda.” As Meilin would soon discover, Sun Yee loved red pandas so much that she asked the gods to turn her into one, and they complied, giving her the ability to harness her emotions to turn into a giant red panda. And Sun Yee passed this ability on to all of her female descendants, something Meilin first discovers one morning, via a very well-worn film trope, when she looks in the bathroom mirror and finds a giant red panda staring back at her.
After the initial shock at discovering her metamorphosis, Mei is a little relieved to discover that at least the change isn’t permanent. By forcing herself to calm down, she can slowly transform back into her old self - aside from her now permanently red hair. And, as long as she can keep herself from getting too emotional, she won't unexpectedly change back into the panda. Soon, she even learns that with practice, she can change back and forth between her human and panda forms at will. Now, an untold number of stories and films have tackled the changes kids go through at this particular stage of life, moving from adolescence into puberty, but what Turning Red handles so wonderfully while showing how tumultuous these new roiling emotions can be, is that this isn’t a blip in our lives we’re supposed to get past, but one stage in the lifelong emotional development everyone goes through. The story places Meilin in an intergenerational context with her mother, grandmother, and aunts, who all share having gone through this same experience and, to varying degrees, are all still contending with the constant reminder of having experienced this to the present day.
In one sense, Turning Red is something like my favorite kind of X-Men origin story. Mei is a young girl who finds herself unexpectedly transformed by entering puberty. She’s going through powerful and terrifying changes that fundamentally alter her relationship with the world, her own life, and the people in it. And, to a great degree, what is unleashed by this change is shaped by having the right people in her life to support and mentor her throughout this transformation. Part of how Meilin relates to her new superpower is shaped by her family. Her mother knew this was going to happen to her someday because she had gone through it all herself, but she kept it a secret from her daughter, thinking it was something to be frightened and ashamed of. Meilin’s grandmother and aunts are on the same page: this power is something dangerous to be eliminated with a particular ritual at the first opportunity.
Importantly, though, the greater part of what shapes Mei’s relationship to her power, the element that makes her experience so different from that of her relatives, is the unwavering support she gets from her friends and peers. When Meilin first transforms into the panda, she panics. Her mom hears her and comes running. Meilin manages to hide in the shower, and through the curtain, her mother wrongly intuits that what’s happened is her daughter has had her first period. It’s interesting that her mother goes immediately into crisis management mode. She has a large pile of pads and remedies and is smotheringly amped to manage the situation for her daughter. Conversely, when her friends knock on her window and discover that the reason that Mei hasn’t been to school is that she’s now a giant red panda, they aren’t the slightest bit scared, or embarrassed for her; they are thrilled. Mei’s friends so embrace this new discovery about their friend that she feels so safe with them that she changes back to her human form without even trying. When her parents later test her ability to control her emotions and control the panda, it’s thinking of the love and support of her friends that grounds Mei enough not to transform.
One of the interesting quirks of human beings as a species is how helpless we start out. Unlike some creatures that are self-sufficient at birth, humans are incredibly helpless for a very long time. Part of the peril/benefit of this is that humans, though starting out with many fixed traits, are incredibly responsive and adaptable to our environment; and the biggest element of our environment is that we are each uniquely shaped by the social features of our world: our friends, our family, and our neighbors. We get to see this in how much Mei’s friends shape how she processes the things she’s discovering about herself, but we also get to infer how much the absence of that kind of support influenced how Meilin’s mother and grandmother processed going through the same experiences. The finale of the film is a fairly impressive battle that occurs when Meilin’s mother, Ming, gets so upset with her defiance about giving up the panda, that her own panda bursts free from the pendant she has it trapped inside. This is not made explicit, but her mother’s panda is vastly larger than everyone else’s, seemingly because of how tightly Ming has had to contain her own emotions. While Meilin’s panda is larger than the average adult, Ming’s panda is larger than most buildings.
It also would be a bit of a mischaracterization to characterize the ending of the film as a battle, per se, as the conflict between Meilin and her mother is fairly brief, stopping when Mei realizes that what Ming needs from her is the kind of support that Meilin got from her friends. She isn’t powerful enough to handle her mother alone, so Mei's grandmother and aunts break the pendants containing their own pandas, giving them the strength to help perform the ritual that will allow Ming to transform back into her human form. The thing that most makes this a battle is that Meilin is both trying to help her mother, and fighting to also assert her new identity as something other than the perfectly obedient girl that Ming wants her to be.
Part of the ritual that contains the panda involves traveling to a magical bamboo forest where they meet Sun Yee and are given the choice to relinquish their panda power, trapping it into a pendant. What first caused the conflict between Meilin and her mother is Mei's refusal to relinquish her power. After performing the ritual again to help her mother, Ming, Meilin, her aunts, and her grandmother, are all transported to the magical bamboo forest again. Once in the forest, Mei goes searching for her mother. She finds Ming, but she doesn’t find her as an adult. Instead, Mei finds her mother as a girl, the same age she was when she first went through the ritual herself. Ming is a young teen girl, laying on the ground, sobbing over getting so angry that she accidentally hurt her mother right before going through the ritual for the first time. Mei hears her mother, now a girl her own age, recounting the exact same struggles she is going through now: Feeling like she has to bottle up her emotions, that she has to be perfect to please her mother, that she’ll never be good enough for her, or anyone.
It’s amazing how empathic a moment this is. Meilin gets to discover that her mother actually understands exactly what she’s going through because Ming has been struggling with the exact same feelings her entire life. Additionally, Mei gets to gain a new perspective on those emotions in herself because she sees someone else who is struggling with them and needs help right now. In a fantastic visual, Meilin takes her mother’s hand and walks her through the bamboo forest to meet Sun Ye, all while Ming slowly calms down and ages back to adulthood as they pass through the forest. The film has the most wonderfully nuanced take on emotions, understanding the important difference between managing our emotions and the dangers of simply bottling them up; and the film understands how important the people in our lives are in our figuring that out.
Lastly, and most importantly, everyone leaves the bamboo forest on the terms that work for them. Meilin’s mother, aunts, and grandmother accept that Mei is going to keep her panda, while they all choose to once again relinquish theirs. Mei is proud of what she’s become, and her mother has now come to be proud of whatever makes her daughter happy. May everyone be so lucky, as to be able to find themselves, despite whatever trials they may meet, and may everyone find themselves surrounded by people in their lives who can unconditionally love and support them for who they are.
Damian is an endothermic vertebrate with a large four-chambered heart residing in Kerhonkson, NY with his wife and two children. His dream Jeopardy categories would be: They Might Be Giants, Berry Gordy’s The Last Dragon, 18th and 19th Century Ethical Theory, Moral Psychology, Caffeine, Gummy Candies, and Episode-by-Episode podcasts about TV shows that have been off the air for at least 10 years.