Adolescence is hard.
That’s no secret, of course. Why, adolescence itself is almost like an anti-secret—filled with all sorts of embarrassing things you’d rather just lock away. You grow what seems to be several feet taller in, like, about a second. You start growing hair in weird places. You sprout a tail. Your body odor ratchets up a notch or two. You—
Oh, wait. You mean to tell me that you didn’t sprout a tail when you were an adolescent? Well, consider yourself lucky. Mei is here to tell you that growing tails—or anything else more at home on a red panda—is no picnic.
Mei, a 13-year-old girl of Chinese descent and Canadian citizenship, never asked to transform into a gigantic red panda. In fact, she never knew the option was on the table. Her main concerns were keeping her grades up, keeping her love of boy band 4-Town strong and keeping her mom proud of her. And a little touch of puberty wasn’t going to stop her from performing her scholarly/friendly/daughterly duties to the letter.
But it seems as though her mom has been keeping a secret from Mei.
While most kids have to navigate cracking voices and oily skin in adolescence, Mei’s family takes puberty to a whole new level. Long ago, one of Mei’s ancestors made a bargain with the gods: Help me protect the village from rampaging attackers! She prayed. The gods granted her the ability to transform into a gigantic red panda, which did the trick.
But the gods, apparently having a rather twisted sense of humor, gave this gift a catch: All the women in the family thereafter would be able to turn into pandas, too—a neat ability in feudal China, but less ideal in urban Toronto. And the transformation itself can be a bit tricky. The panda comes out when emotions run high. And given that adolescence is a time of sky-high emotionalism … well, let’s just say that his magical red panda is about the only panda that’s not endangered.
But that’s not all. Mei’s mom, Ming Lee, warns her daughter that the panda comes with a dark side. As such, most of the women (Ming Lee included) have undergone a special ceremony that has separated the women from their panda alter-egos. Mei can—and will—do the same, once the full moon makes an appearance.
It can’t happen soon enough. Whether it’s the panda’s “dark side” or something else, Mei’s not quite thinking like herself these days. She’s angrier. More prone to lash out. She sometimes lies to her beloved family. Sneak behind their backs. Think about boys, and not just the members of 4-Town.
Mei’s not the sweet little girl she used to be. She’s part panda now. And the panda wants to come out.
Turning Red is an in-your-face metaphor for puberty and all the changes that go along with it. As we’ll see, the film tackles those changes straight on, without a blink or a flinch. And it reminds us that while adolescence can feel strange or even monstrous at times, it’s a normal and even beautiful transformation.
The movie also understands how difficult adolescence can be for both kids and parents. The dynamics between the two are changing, and how both parties navigate those changes can impact relationships for a long time to come. (We see that Ming Lee doesn’t have a particularly close relationship with her own mother, and Ming Lee’s own transformation was to blame for that.)
Mei loves her own family very much. Certainly, her relationship with her mom faces strains during the film, but the underlying affection remains.
But—again, a nod toward what happens to most of us during adolescence—she’s deeply and increasingly committed to her friends: Miriam, Priya and Abby. With the exception of a late plot hiccup or two, the four of them support one another unwaveringly. They’re the center of Mei’s life, really—and as such, it’s perhaps no surprise they help center her, too. When Mei discovers that peace and calm can banish her panda self for a time, Mei thinks of her friends to conjure that sense of serenity.
Ming Lee leads tours of her family temple for visitors, with Mei serving as “its assistant temple keeper.” Mei tells us that there, “instead of honoring a god, we honor our ancestors,” and mother and daughter light incense as they kneel before a portrait of one of them.
That revered ancestor (Sun Yee) is called the “Guardian of the Red Pandas.” Before we know about the family gift/curse, we know that Sun Yee sacrificed herself for others, and that the red panda “blessed” the family. (It’s only later, when Mei goes through her transformation, that we’re told the gods bestowed this magical “blessing” on the family.) We sometimes see flashbacks or visions of sorts of supernatural red pandas flying about, sometimes smiting their enemies.
The separation ceremony feels quite magical as well: A circle is drawn around the person who would be separated from her panda-self. Others stand around the circle and chant. (We’re told the music and the chanting could be anything, as long as it comes from “the heart,” but Mei’s family is made up of traditionalists who chant what sound like magic incantations.) And if the spell ceremony works as it should, a glowing symbol or rune of some sort appears in the circle as well.
[Spoiler Warning] While the ceremony separates supernatural panda essences from their mortal human cohorts, the panda parts of them don’t go away: Rather, they’re housed in various objects—often pieces of jewelry—that the mortal human then keeps on her person.
Members of 4-Town arrive, decked out as angels. We see people dressed in ways that would indicate other religions, including a Sikh dastar and a Muslim hijab. We hear that someone has “50 years of experience as a shaman.”
Mei and her friends are deeply infatuated with the five members of 4-Town, and we hear Mei and her friends talk about how they might date and marry and settle down with the bandmates. (They discover one of their male friends has an affinity for the band, too—crying along with all the tween girls when the group takes the stage during a concert. Read into that what you will.)
But Mei’s also starting to feel attractions for boys closer to home. She begins doodling pictures of Devon, one such would-be crush: The first drawing we see depicts him apparently shirtless, holding Mei in an embrace. Another picture features him as a merman—complete with tail. We don’t see any other drawings, but when her mom looks at them, she’s appalled. “Did he do these things to you?!” she asks, horrified. She then marches down to the convenience store (where the boy works) and demands, “What have you done to my Mei Mei?!” Devon’s done nothing, of course; in fact, he doesn’t even know her name.
Meanwhile, Mei’s equally as horrified by what she drew. “What we you thinking, drawing those things?!” she scolds herself. “Those horrible, awful, sexy things!” But it’s not the last time that Mei fantasizes about a boy in a fish tail. We see part of one of her mer-fantasies, which is strong enough to trigger her panda transformation.
Mei and her friends flirt with some middle school boys. Mei expresses a desire to dance somewhat suggestively—shaking her rear end and such—much to her mother’s horror. Her mom scolds other kids, too. “Where are your parents?” she says to some unseen targets. “Put some clothes on!” We see a guy shirtless.
Another sensitive subject that Turning Red alludes to repeatedly, and one that is related to reproduction and anatomy (which is why we’ve included it in this section), is menstruation. When a panda-tized Mei, hides in the bathroom, her mother assumes that’s the issue: She asks Mei, “Did the red peony bloom?” We also see and hear references to menstrual pads. Mei’s mom also talks with her about the importance of “protect[ing] your petals and start cleaning them regularly.” We hear references to cramps. And some might hear an echo of menstruation in the film’s title.
Ming Lee cautions Mei that their spirit-pandas come with a “dark side,” and we do see Mei transform into a panda when she becomes enraged. At one point, Mei’s arm clicks into panda mode and hurls a rubber dodgeball through a school window.
Mei’s parents even move her into a furniture-less bedroom until it’s time for the transformation ceremony. (We see claw marks on the walls and floors, presumably from Mei in her transformed state.) But even when the panda isn’t a product of violent anger, its mere size can cause problems: She causes plenty of property damage in said form.
A massive arena suffers some massive damage. Someone’s kicked in the shins. People wrestle a bit. Supernatural animals fight and bite. Mom and Mei watch a Chinese show, and Mom mentions that one of the characters will likely be stabbed on his wedding night.
Two uses of “crap” and two uses of the initials “O-M-G.” We also hear plenty of other crude insults tossed about, too.
When Ming Lee believes that Devon’s been untoward toward her daughter, she says that he’s what happens “when you don’t wear sunblock and do drugs all day.”
Mei starts acting in some un-Mei-like ways, and I don’t mean just turning into a panda. When her mother refuses to let her go to a concert, Mei decides she’s going to go anyway—and she spends much of the rest of the movie lying and hiding things from her parents. We learn that her grades have started to slip, too. And later, throws her friends under the metaphorical bus to keep from getting in trouble with her mom.
We hear references to constipation and body odor.
Ever since Pixar rolled out the landmark classic Toy Story, the studio has been known for telling some of the best cinematic stories of the age. And while Pixar’s movies are technically for kids, those labels can obscure the beauty, depth and resonance of the films themselves.
Up is an astounding and affecting rumination on grief. Inside Out does nothing less than unpack the human psyche. Not every Pixar film has been a home run. Some have had their own issues. But generally, from Finding Nemo to The Incredibles, from WALL-E to Soul, Pixar films have generally pulled off a rare double achievement—offering audiences of all ages beautiful messages beautifully told.
Even Brave—not considered among Pixar’s best—bravely jumped headlong into the ticklish family dynamics between a demanding mother and headstrong girl and found some fertile middle ground therein. In the movie, Mom realized that she couldn’t turn daughter Merida into someone she was never born to be. But Merida understood that growing up meant embracing not just new freedoms, but new duties, too.
By those standards, Turning Red is a disappointment. Its own mother-daughter story skips the depth and maturity that’s been such a Pixar hallmark, leaning instead on a short-sighted, do-your-own-thing ethos. Indeed, in some ways, it’s almost the grinning doppelganger of Brave.
Turning Red starts where Brave ends—with Mei expressing an understanding that personal freedom and autonomy inherently need to be balanced with the needs of family and community. “I am my own person,” she says, “but that doesn’t mean doing whatever I want. Like most adults, I have responsibilities.”
But while Brave suggested that mature understanding was something that people grew into through adolescence, Turning Red suggests that’s something we should grow out of.
“I like boys!” Mei eventually shouts at her mother. “I like loud music! I like gyrating! I’m 13! Deal with it!” In the movie’s ethos, this isn’t a childish temper tantrum: It’s a declaration of emancipation, Mei telling her mom that she was done following her rules. (And this at an age when child psychologists say that adolescents are literally, in some ways, a little crazy.) In fact, Mei even uses a spin on a pro-choice slogan that’s chilling for a couple of reasons: “My panda, my choice,” she says.
Now, admittedly, Mei’s rebellious panda stage comes with some lessons for mom and dad. Mei’s mother is pretty controlling. And as adolescents mature, parents can gradually ease up on the restrictions a bit—especially if their kids, like Mei, have proven themselves to be reliable. Teens need to have room to explore their individuality and test some limits; it’s part of growing up. Doubling down on rules and restrictions without context can indeed lead to rebellion and, sometimes, fractured relationships.
But this story lacks the nuance or the fortitude to show where Mei was wrong, too. The movie suggests that, while family values are all well and good, the individual trumps all. It’s the ethos of the “me generation,” just spelled M-E-I.
And that’s not the only way that Turning Red slips from Pixar’s historically sky-high podium. While the story’s entertaining, it’s not engrossing. It’s competently, but not beautifully, made. And while many of Pixar’s best didn’t have a whit of Plugged In content concerns, this has plenty—from its spirituality to frank sexual asides to a few crass words and phrases.
Sure, you can find plenty of worse fare out there for children. Turning Red didn’t have me turning red. But it didn’t leave me tickled pink, either. And given Pixar’s lofty pedigree, that left me feeling rather blue.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.