Girl meets panda: Pixar’s ‘Turning Red’ is a fun, diverse adventure for a new age group

Ashley Pelletier, Arts & Life Editor

Illustration by (Shavonne Chin)

When you’re 13 years old, your life feels like it’s falling apart. Acne, raging hormones and middle school drama bring waves of embarrassment and anger. Now imagine dealing with all that, but you also keep turning into a giant red panda.

Pixar’s latest film, “Turning Red,” was released on Disney+ March 11. It follows Meilin Lee, a 13-year-old Chinese-Canadian girl living in her mother’s shadow while trying to become her own person.

“Turning Red” is unlike any Pixar movie to date. It’s set in 2002 in Toronto, Canada and includes references to Tamagotchis and Nokia cell phones. Lee’s favorite boy band, 4*Town, is clearly reminiscent of The Backstreet Boys and other bands of the era.

The early 2000s setting filled with relevant pop culture moments stands apart from Pixar movies’ usual timeless quality. For some, that may not be appealing. However, I think the positives of “Turning Red” far outweigh the negatives.

For one, Domee Shi, the film’s director, took many aspects of Lee’s life from her own lived experiences. From the relationship with an overbearing mother to embracing Chinese culture, Shi artfully handles the story she created.

Culture and family relationships are often discussed in children’s movies, as can recently be seen with “Encanto” and “Onward.” However, “Turning Red” handles a moment rarely covered in the media — menstruation. The scene is short, but it is still a big deal. If I had seen something like this when I was 13, I’d have felt a lot more comfortable with getting my period.

The main reason Shi could handle such a topic was because of Lee’s age. Very few children’s movies take place when the characters are at the awkward age between preteen and teenager. Making more films like “Turning Red’ will allow kids in those age groups to feel more normal.

The animation for “Turning Red” is amazing, which can be expected from any Pixar film. However, the clear inspiration from anime and differentiation from movies like “Luca” and “Soul,” the two most recent Pixar films, make for a fresh look for an innovative production company. While the style could be perceived as more childish, I think it works with the quirky, naive narrator.

Shi previously directed “Bao,” an eight-minute Pixar short that played before “Incredibles 2.” “Bao” also handled the story of an overbearing Chinese-Canadian mother but focused on the relationship that Chinese mothers share with their children through food.

I look forward to seeing where Shi goes from here. “Turning Red” is Shi’s first feature-length film. She is also the first female director of a Pixar production. With such strong artistic vision and storytelling, Shi will continue to trailblaze for Asian women in animation.

Outside of the East Asian representation in “Turning Red,” there is other great representation. The security officer at Lee’s school is Sikh. One of her newly gained friends has an insulin patch to treat diabetes. While these moments of representation are fleeting, they are still significant for those groups.

I am a white woman. I am not a part of the target audience for “Turning Red.” However, I think the representation seen throughout the story is so important. All but one of the primary characters are of various racial and ethnic backgrounds. It is so important to give more children the opportunity to see themselves in media, especially a Disney or Pixar movie. I hope that Disney and Pixar continue to tell inclusive stories  of characters in fun, memorable ways.