“This isn’t just our first concert. This is our first step into womanhood.”Meilin Lee
Recently, Pixar’s strongest films have been those that draw inspiration from wider cultural backgrounds like Coco and Soul. Turning Red is the first to feature an ethnically Asian lead, and Domee Shi’s story about adolescence conflicting with familial duty and traditional expectations will likely be familiar to most of the Asian diaspora. This is a coming-of-age tale with the turmoil of Meilin’s adolescent hormones depicted by her literal transformation into a large red panda whenever she cannot control her emotions. I was aware of the “controversy” over the film’s direct references to menstruation, so was surprised to discover they were so limited — the title is unrelated, and there is simply a misunderstanding by Meilin’s mother who proffers a stack of sanitary pads; it does nothing more than normalise part of puberty in passing and in a healthy way. Rather, Turning Red’s focus is on Meilin’s strained relationship with her controlling mother and the fact it is her friends’ support that provides a calming influence. The sumptuous detail in food is noteworthy, recognising its cultural significance (Shi also wrote and directed Pixar’s Oscar-winning Bao short), but largely the engagement with Chinese heritage feels superficial despite the family running a temple. It is perhaps an unfair criticism since little is central to the story beyond lunar mysticism — like To All The Boys this is ultimately about the teenage experience and simply happens to be Asian American led (which is a key part of improving representation). A greater issue is that Turning Red rapidly runs out of steam in its second half, with a conclusion that feels outsized for its personal story.