By Emily Tan
Boston University News Service
Pixar’s latest animated film follows 13-year-old Chinese Canadian Meilin “Mei” Lee (Rosalie Chung) as she navigates the chaos that comes with growing up. Directed by Oscar-winner Domee Shi, “Turning Red” streams exclusively on Disney+.
At first glance, Mei has it all figured out. She is a straight-A student with a tight-knit group of best friends and a close relationship with her parents — particularly with her overprotective mother, Ming (Sandra Oh). But things take a turn for the worse when Mei starts transforming into a giant red panda, a phenomenon that generations of Lee women have undergone whenever they experience intense emotions.
The tween initially feels embarrassed of the creature. It is offensive and out of control — the polar opposite of her mother’s perfect perception of her. Mei’s family sees the red panda as a secret that should stay hidden, while her peers celebrate Mei as the beast.
“Turning Red” is the allegorical tale of a young girl’s struggles as she experiences puberty. Mei suddenly becomes a hairy, smelly, self-conscious creature that constantly deals with confusion, anger, and shame. On top of that, she wrestles with reconciling her mother’s impossible expectations with her newfound sense of self that is obsessed with boys and gyrating boy bands.
“Turning Red” is a brilliant coming-of-age film that successfully captures the shared experience of tweens everywhere. The movie does an impeccable job of expressing the tensions between family and individual as tweens begin to change and grow into their own. But it is not without controversy.
Some viewers have declared the movie too niche, for being about a young Asian Canadian girl living in 2002. In a now-archived review by Sean O’Connell, the managing director of CinemaBlend found the film “limiting” for its “jokes and references that will speak directly to teenage girls” and its root “very specifically in the Asian community of Toronto.”
O’Connell was not the only one who felt alienated from and unengaged in the plot.
“I’m not Chinese and I don’t live in Toronto, and I’m not female,” wrote reviewer Ratty R on Rotten Tomatoes. “I’m sure people in any of those groups might like it, and good for them.”
Among all the criticisms of “Turning Red,” this is the most unfounded. Pixar has released a slew of movies with main characters who do not share demographics with viewers. Films that center around a trash-compacting robot on a deserted Earth (“WALL-E”) or sea-monsters-turned-humans in the Italian countryside (“Luca”) for example. These films have never been criticized for being unrelatable, despite audiences not being able to physically relate to the characters.
Some parents also took to the Internet to express their disapproval of the PG-rated movie’s mention of menstruation and inclusion of sanitary pads, calling it inappropriate — even though 1.8 billion people around the world get periods every month, according to UNICEF.
“I would have never thought I would have to pre-screen a Disney movie for kids,” wrote Rotten Tomatoes reviewer Danielle Z. “My 8-year-old twin sons do not need to know what a period is yet or my 6 year old.”
Parent Sarah Ellis wrote on Facebook that she would not feel comfortable with her 7-year-old daughter watching the film and that Disney should not be teaching her children about puberty.
The discussion surrounding menstruation is still largely frowned upon, but some have argued that “the biological reality of little girls should not be a taboo.” Critics missed the point of “Turning Red”: It is a story about puberty, a universal struggle. And the film celebrates and normalizes that phenomenon.
Some male viewers have also criticized the 13-year-old female characters for being unlikeable, mainly for their over-the-top antics and obsession with boys and pop culture.
“Throughout the movie, the characters on screen make me aggressive with their screaming, butt jokes, cringe dancing, K-pop stans, like …” wrote reviewer David Z on Rotten Tomatoes.
But for most women, Mei reminds them of their 13-year-old selves, their crazed phase of developing crushes and fangirling over celebrities — which was why they took to Twitter to share those stories and populate the hashtag #at13 with anecdotes of their inner fantasies and fan fictions from when they were tweens.
O’Connell faced intense backlash for his controversial review that the internet called “racist and sexist.” In a time of continued anti-Asian hate, people continue to have negative sentiments, even toward an animated movie starring Pixar’s first Asian protagonist.
“Turning Red” depicts the reality of adolescent girls. The toxic view that the movie’s female characters are “cringy” and “obnoxious” reinforces the idea that young girls should hide the parts of themselves that society considers undesirable.
The film has won viewers over with its realistic and unapologetic depiction of young girls growing up, as well as its strong representation of Asian culture and the immigrant experience.
Its bubbly and funny moments are interspersed with bittersweet and heartfelt ones, making for an entertaining and emotional story that is relatable to viewers of all ages. Its anime-inspired animation style and upbeat supporting characters also add to the colorful and fun watching experience.
“Turning Red” is an ode to awkward tweens, those who struggle with self-acceptance as they enter a new phase of their lives. It is the first of its kind, but hopefully, not the last.