Disney’s “Turning Red” puts an Asian spin on the coming of age experience

The third Disney+ exclusive film is a joyful yet emotional ride


Photo by Pixar Animation Studios

Official Poster for “Turning Red,” released exclusively on Disney+ on March 11.

Krish Dev and Minjae Kang

“My whole life I’ve been perfect little Mei Mei. But maybe I like this new me.”

Chinese Canadian teenager Meilin Lee transforms into a giant red panda whenever she feels strong emotions in Disney’s latest movie “Turning Red,” which premiered exclusively on Disney Plus on March 11. Directed by Oscar-winning Domme Shi — the first woman of color to direct a Pixar movie — the film follows 13-year-old Meilin as she overcomes emotional struggles, finding herself torn between wanting to use the panda to fulfill her teenage desires and wishing to uphold the image of a perfect child her mother has come to expect.    

Uniquely, “Turning Red” does not portray a clear antagonist. Rather than a conflict between good and evil, the movie shows the emotional struggles between Meilin and her parents as they work to reach a common point in their ideals while trying to maintain a loving family. The movie provides a new take on the theme of “coming of age” — it not only shows Meilin learning to understand her family but also shows her parents going through a similar coming of age process as they emotionally mature with Meilin. Through such themes, the movie provides an opportunity for parents to contemplate the type of relationship they have with their own children.

Meilin exits a streetcar to walk to her family’s temple and home in Toronto’s Chinatown. References to the city are ever-present adding to the atmosphere of the film. Photo by Pixar Animation Studios

“Turning Red” ultimately succeeds in delivering a meaningful message, yet the slow start to the story, with multiple plot points being introduced, ultimately takes away from the main theme. Additionally, despite their diverse cultural backgrounds, Meilin’s friends Miriam, Priya and Abby fail to contribute to a movie focused on cultural heritage and expectations, acting mostly as mere comedic relief sidekicks.

Visually, the animation diverts from the traditional Pixar style with not only cartoonish aspects, but also high quality textures and lighting to make characters and objects appear realistic. In addition, following “Luca” and “Encanto,” Pixar chose a 1.85:1 aspect ratio to give a cinema feel despite the movie not releasing in theaters. 

The soundtrack of the film also uses western pop and Asian traditional music interchangeably to strike a balance and ultimately connect viewers to the character’s cultural backgrounds.

“Turning Red” successfully captures the essence of characteristics present in teenagers by casting actors who are a similar age as the characters they voice: Rosalie Chiang, Ava Morse and Addison Chandler, all 16 to 17-year-old actors and actresses, voice 13-year-old teenage characters in the film. The similarity in age range between the actors and their respective characters helps add realism to the conversations and banter between Meilin and her friends. 

While falling short on certain aspects, “Turning Red” ultimately manages to strike a balance between humor and angst, helping audiences delve into an exciting fictional world, while at the same time providing an opportunity for audiences of all ages to think about their approaches in life and their relationships with their families. 

Rating: 3.5/5