Turning Red follows the exciting story of a 13-year-old girl, Meilin Lee, who’s found that puberty and growing up might be a little more than she could have anticipated. Turns out all the women of Mei’s family experience a unique and magical right of passage: around the same age, they all turn into fluffy red pandas! “The panda” is directly correlated to their emotions and comes out when Mei is unable to contain herself.
The film explores familiar themes as well as ones Disney has steered away from in years past: puberty, depictions of realistic teenage girls, diversity, and new stories. I had begun to feel disheartened by Disney in years past in which they seemed to be taking the easy route with remakes and other films based on previous stories. Disney was, and still is, simply capitalizing off of old films, redeveloping them, and presenting them as new. That’s incredibly boring in the long run and is lazy on Disney’s end. Maybe these films will receive a moment of glamor in which we discuss how cool it was to see humans in place of cartoons, but ultimately there is nothing new being offered.
Previous Disney films starring people of color (POC) characters often involve the main character transforming into an animal for the majority of the film (The Princess and the Frog or The Emperor’s New Groove). It masks the POC character, yet Disney still gets to claim they’re diverse and inclusive. Animal cartoons are fun, but it becomes an issue when the only POC Disney films, or a majority of them, feature the main character as an animal with little reason: it sends a message to POC children that a character that looks like them is not suitable for being on screen the entire time. Disney has experienced pushback against this and has evidently strived to do better. We can see this change in films such as Encanto and how Mei spends less time as a furry creature in Turning Red (as compared to predecessors). While she’s still a red panda for quite a bit of the film, the red panda also ties in directly with her cultural identity.
Disney has made several films that feature women as the main character, but it usually revolves around a man. For example, in practically any early Disney princess film – Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, and The Little Mermaid young women depend on men in the film. A slow change has been made with Frozen, Moana; and now Turning Red. Turning Red offers an honest, fun, and ultimately refreshing look into the life of a teenage girl. Teenage girls for the most part are weird and creative. They have niche interests, enjoy drawing fan art, scream over their favorite band, go through intensely awkward situations, and have family problems. Turning Red has received pushback for being “inappropriate” for discussing periods and for having the girls crush over the fictional boy band, 4Town. There’s nothing inappropriate about this: it’s real and it’s powerful to see this portrayed.
Another huge part of Turning Red which has led to positive feedback is the discussion around generational trauma, pressure; and family issues. We learn that like Mei, her mother, Ming, has suffered while trying to be perfect. The panda can be seen as a metaphor for this generational trauma as it’s passed down to Mei, whose biggest fear is letting down her parents. Films where the female protagonist isn’t obsessed with pleasing a man are leaps in the correct direction. Women deserve to see teenage girls on screen having fun, being true to themselves, and if they want, having a crush on a talented boy band member. Turning Red also infuses culture and diversity into the film. Mei shares a diverse friend group with her best friends: Priya, Miriam, and Abby; two of which are also Asian and one who’s Jewish. We see the people in Toronto’s Chinatown simply living their lives and enjoying Mei’s family temple. This family temple features images of the red panda and directly ties into Mei’s family history and culture.
Turning Red is a delightful as well as important surprise in the world of Disney films. Having it touch upon deeper subjects helps audiences to feel more seen and understood. Films like Turning Red are a step in the right direction toward films that touch on avoided topics in society. Genuine diverse representation is also integral and Turning Red does well in incorporating different characters of different racial identities and backgrounds. Hopefully, going forward, Disney, as well as other animators continue down this path.
Mikayla Tolliver is a Sophomore Writing major who just wants the chance to hug a big fuzzy red panda. They can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Art by Julia Young.