Living up to the expectations of your loved ones is a universal experience for kids of colour. We all grow up with the ever-present reminder that we are a product of their sacrifices. The decisions they made, the hardships they’ve faced, all for our sake. That awareness leaves you with the weight of needing to be worthy of them. Regardless of our relationships with our Elders and whether we want to live up to their expectations, it is a weight that hangs around our shoulders. A weight that you have to shed if you’re going to live your life to its fullest. It’s honestly a herculean effort to step into the light like that. But that’s precisely what Pixar’s Turning Red sets out to do.
Turning Red brings to screens a low fantasy coming-of-age story bursting at the seams with culture set in Toronto. It’s here we meet the star of the hour, 13-year-old Meilin “Mei” Lee (Rosalie Chiang), a self-assured A+ student and all-around overachiever. Mei is like any 13-year old; she goes to school, loves her friends, has a crush on a cute boy and wants to live up to her parents’ expectations. She does a phenomenal job of it, too; she’s honestly the child most Asian parents could wish for.
Mei’s mom, Ming Lee (Sandra Oh), perfectly plays into her authoritative yet caring parent. Trying to fix everything out of love but struggling to understand that sometimes letting go is necessary. On the other hand, Mei’s father, Jin Lee (Orion Lee), brought to life a much more nurturing portrayal of Asian fathers than we’ve seen before. He plays the quiet one, supporting his wife and daughter through his actions and with limited but deeply impactful words.
Little heartwarming moments hit me personally because we usually see representations of Asian family dynamics being very critical and cold. Still, Turning Red made it a point to show the warmth between us. Moments like Mei and Ming praying together, Jin cooking for his family, Ming trying to help Mei with her schoolwork or bringing her fruit after night. It resonated deeply with me, having also experienced those acts of service as a form of affection and love.
But no family is perfect, and Turning Red doesn’t shy away from showing us that part of life either.
As Mei begins her journey into adolescence and discovering her relationship with her family, she learns she can turn into a giant red panda when she experiences strong emotions. Turning Red does a hilarious job of introducing this transformation to us because her parents knew it would happen eventually, but they didn’t expect the change to come so soon. It beautifully illustrates how our parents are aware that they’re raising us to become adults in our own right, but it still takes them by surprise.
They begin to push and pull us in a million different ways to try and keep us safe, keep us on the right path, make sure that we succeed. But more often than not, it creates a rift that feels like it keeps widening. Some choose to back away from the edge, others decide to leap into the abyss and chart their path, but Turning Red explores what happens when you teeter over the edge and live a double life.
In the trailers, we saw Mei’s friends catch her in her Panda form and embrace that side of her, embracing and celebrating it in a way that her family fails to. The stark contrast between the reactions to her Panda digs up old feelings of resentment and comfort. The bitterness and anger you might’ve felt at your family not understanding you. The comfort and love that came from finding your people in school.
Ming’s less than ideal reaction to Mei’s friends Miriam (Ava Rose), Priya (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan), & Abby (Hyein Park) only makes her and Mei drift apart, even more, fanning the flames of Mei’s secrecy. You sympathize with Mei more and more as the film progresses. But it all comes to a crashing stop when the squad’s shenanigans get them into serious trouble.
The dramatic shift in the movie’s tone brings you to the sobering realization that this isn’t just about parental concern. Instead, it’s the manifestation of unhealed generational trauma that once tore apart Ming and her mother (Mei’s grandmother)— now rearing its ugly head to do the same between Mei and Ming.
The trauma isn’t magically healed as we approach the movie’s end. Turning Red chooses not to wrap the story with a bow and a happy ending. Instead, its resolution is more realistic and honest to the situation. Genuinely exemplifying the happiness and melancholy that comes with growing up and accepting that to be yourself, you won’t live up to expectations, but you will live the life you want to live.
I expected the movie to be good, but Turning Red went above and beyond what I could’ve asked for. It was a true representation of the Asian Canadian experience; the dashes of Toronto scenery make the film personally meaningful to me as an Asian immigrant who grew up here. The use of red and green as complementary colours symbolizing embracing one’s individuality vs rejecting it in favour of keeping in line with tradition. Its talented cast of the voice actors and the emphasis on shining their unique personalities.
Turning Red is a damn near perfect movie and one I can confidently give a 9.5 out of 10. I’m withholding the 0.5 only because my Desi Toronto sister Maitreyi deserved way more lines. But other than that, I cannot wait to rewatch it with family when it premieres on Disney+ on March 11th!