Read on for my Turning Red review:
There were some funny bits, cute parts, and important themes – but everything was over-the-top and exaggerated, which didn’t work for me when it meant that characters became caricatures and lessons got lost within spectacle.
Turning Red, Pixar’s latest film, had caused some controversy even before it was released. Disney announced that it would be heading directly to Disney+ for streaming rather than receiving a theatrical release, which had many people upset about Pixar being slighted (their last several films, Soul and Luca, also went directly to Disney+). On top of that, it seemed clear that Turning Red might touch on the topics of puberty and periods, which had some people bothered as well.
So going into it I really wanted to love Turning Red and be a staunch defender of it. And I absolutely do believe it does some important things and addresses topics that need to be addressed. Unfortunately, for me personally, it just didn’t hit home. I didn’t connect with it in the way that I did with other Pixar and Disney films, and there were a couple of elements that bothered me (again, some of this is just personal preference). I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to others, but it just wasn’t a great movie to me.
Please note: minor spoilers will follow within this Turning Red review.
If you read my reviews of films often, you know I am the type of person who is very character-focused. A movie can have a flimsy plot but if the characters are well developed and interesting I’ll love it. Give me poor characters and I’ll probably not care for the movie. Turning Red is interesting because I think their characters are okay overall. They certainly have personality, but in some ways those personalities are so strong I believe that it may be polarizing for certain audiences.
Many people find the main character, Mei, to be a bit obnoxious. She didn’t bother me but I can certainly see why people might feel that way. Her friend group was also very over-the-top (in some ways they felt more like caricatures than characters). That being said, I absolutely loved seeing how supportive her friends were. It was such a great moment to see that strong female friendship.
My biggest difficulty was with her mother as a character. I understand what the film was going for, but for me at least it didn’t come off in the way that I would have hoped. Mei’s mother is overprotective and a perfectionist – qualities that Mei feels she has to emulate to make her mother happy. I’ll talk about this more below, but her actions just felt so extreme sometimes. Again, it was more of a caricature at times than a character. They were parts they tried to make mom more sympathetic but it wasn’t quite enough for me.
Dad only plays a minor role in the film, but he does have one moment where he has a heart-to-heart with Mei, and it was one of the most touching parts of the whole movie. I was afraid they were going to just make him a push-over, background character, so I was glad to see him at least get that one moment.
If Pixar was hoping to appeal to millennials with this film I think one easy way they did that was with the time period. It’s set in 2002, and Mei is 13 years old. I also happened to be 13/14 years old in 2002, so this is my time period. I’ve long said that the millennial age group is huge into nostalgia, and there was plenty of that in this film. The first 20 minutes or so I kept pausing it to point things out to Jason as we watched – “Remember that? I had a Tamagotchi! Mei plays the flute and I also had stickers on my flute case! And that looks like a JanSport backpack!” (which they called “BagSport” in the movie). So yeah, they nailed that.
It also takes place in Toronto, which I thought was a neat setting. The time period and place are due to the creator’s own upbringing (as she was also around that age in 2002 living in Toronto). I was glad it wasn’t set in the US personally because it’s nice to see some other places.
This might be a bit polarizing too, but I loved the soundtrack. They definitely captured that early 2000’s boy band sound of my childhood well. The songs are extremely catchy and (at least for me!) they definitely make you want to get up and dance. 4*Town is a fictional boy band created for the film – sadly, the singers who voiced the characters are not an actual band. The songs were written by Billie Eilish and Finneas. I have to admit that I’m jamming to “Nobody Like U” and was literally laughing out loud at “1 True Love.”
There are definitely some funny moments in this movie! Your mileage may vary depending on your sense of humor (and I can see how a lot of it might appeal more to kids, but that makes sense), but there were some things that did have me laughing. In particular the “panda hustle” scene had me cracking up. That was by far my favorite part of the movie. There were also a lot of things that were very “out there” (what I call to myself WTF moments) that just didn’t have me laughing at all, but I can see how it might be great for some people.
I know some people didn’t care for the animation style of this one, but I really liked it and thought it was appropriate. Like much of the film it was exaggerated and over the top, so it worked well. There were lots of bright colors and you can tell there is an anime influence, especially when they characters would see something cute and their eyes got all big and shiny. I liked that they did something a little different with this.
There are a lot of important messages and themes in this movie: embracing your true self, accepting your emotions rather than stifling them, not trying to live up to expected perfection, and dealing with pressure from parents (especially from a cultural aspect).
Coming of age
If you had to pick one overall theme of Turning Red, it might be “coming of age.” The idea of puberty isn’t just hinted at. When Mei first turns into a giant red panda, her mother realizes something is wrong but thinks Mei got her period. She starts bringing in pads, tampons, and asks her daughter “has the red peony blossomed?” This is one of those things that I think is really important and great to do in films like this. Let’s normalize talking about periods. It’s literally just biology and it happens to everyone who has a uterus. There’s nothing inappropriate about it, yet we act like it’s such a taboo thing. I look forward to the day when we can say the word “period” in a PG film and there aren’t a million articles online about how it’s inappropriate.
The more diversity we can get into media the better right now. Mei is Chinese-Canadian and her family owns a temple in town. I thought it was great to see a character who both embraced the cultural elements of her family as well as the everyday teenage girl activities, like singing karaoke and gushing about boy bands. One of Mei’s struggles in the film is definitely about finding a balance with those things, but it’s something a lot of kids will face.
There’s no doubt that Mei turning into a giant red panda is a metaphor. But a metaphor for what, exactly? At first it seems like the obvious metaphor is puberty and getting her period, but I think it’s more complex than that. If anything it’s really all just a metaphor for “coming of age” and “embracing who you are.” Which is a lot for one metaphor – one of the main things about the film that I wasn’t really a fan of.
Some things felt forced
This is one of my bigger problems with the movie, at least as an adult watching it. Mei turning into a red panda is obviously a metaphor, but at times the themes and symbolism felt very extreme or forced. This is especially true at the climax of the film and the “final conflict,” if you will. It turned into more spectacle and trying to “represent” these ideas rather than a more genuine moment (we get a little bit of that at the very end, but it just didn’t hit quite right for me).
This is one of those things that was probably not intentional, but it hit me pretty hard. As someone who struggles with pretty bad anxiety and panic attacks, I could certainly see her red panda being a symbolism for anxiety as well. When my emotions get too strong I can’t help a panic attack or an “anxiety ball” coming on that I can’t control. One of the ways I’ve tried combatting it is by TOTALLY emotionless. Those scenes where she was suppressing her panda felt so much like a sort of zombie-esque state I’ve gone into when my anxiety was really bad and I convinced myself I had to numb myself to everything. I like the idea of embracing your panda also meaning, for me, embracing all emotions, even the negative ones, and learning to live with them.
That being said, the movie also caused me some anxiety, especially in the beginning. I’m not exactly what it was, but I felt on edge for the first 30-40 minutes – to the point where Jason asked me if we should stop watching. I wish I could pinpoint it but something was very uncomfortable for me. Turns out I’m not the only one, because a friend of mine told me her kids found this movie incredibly stressful once Mei started turning into a panda.
Ming: Mei’s Mom
This is probably where plenty of people will disagree with me, and that’s okay – the great thing about movies is that we are all free to interpret them and react in our own ways based on our lived experiences. I think the role Ming was supposed to play in the film is an important one: she is an overprotective parent who puts a lot of pressure on Mei to do everything right. And this is obviously a struggle for Mei, while mom is pretty oblivious about how much it is affecting her daughter.
While I think Ming’s attitude and role in the film represents a very real idea, I felt her character was just too extreme. I mean, this woman should have been locked up in jail, not just brushed off as a mom who needs an important life lesson. Not telling her daughter that all the females in their family turn into giant red pandas at some point? For some this might seem crazy, but sadly that happens all too often. Not the red panda thing, of course, but parents not telling their children about life changes that will happen to their bodies until it already occurs. Turning into a giant red panda yourself to hunt down your daughter, destroying an entire stadium and endangering tons of lives in the process? Not just typical overprotective parent. That’s actually the point in the film where I turned to Jason and said, “I think her mom just became a terrorist.”
Flipping out that your daughter has a crush on a boy? Common. Storming down to where said-boy works and screaming at him in public for daughter’s crush that he knows nothing about? Getting crazy. Worrying about what your daughter is doing at school while you’re not around? Very real. Stalking her all day and physically attacking a security guard when confronted? Yikes.
I just wish this character had been addressed with a little more nuance rather than these extreme reactions, because it made it harder to relate to her later on in the movie when we should be having more sympathy for her.
It made me wish that Ming had more consequences in the movie for how she’d been treating her daughter. She may have wanted what was best for Mei, but you have a teenager who is literally hitting herself in the face when she makes a mistake and physically harming herself because of her mother. I feel like especially today we need to address these issues more rather than resolve with a “I’ve made a mistake, I suffered the same as you as a kid, hug it out and everything is okay.” This is a great time to normalize therapy, not *just* embracing your inner panda. Therapy and anger management for Ming too, because she clearly has been damaged by her upbringing as well.
I went in wanting to love Turning Red because of the important themes it does address, but for me it missed the mark. There were some funny bits, cute parts, and moments where those themes did hit home. But everything was over-the-top and exaggerated, which didn’t work for me when it meant that characters became caricatures and lessons got lost within spectacle. However, I’m glad to hear from those who did love it because I think it has a lot to offer!
Have you seen Turning Red? Do you agree with my Turning Red review?