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‘Turning Red’ isn’t a film my family will be re-watching, and here’s why



Zoe Romanowsky - published on 03/25/22

The new Pixar movie has some bright points, but it's hard to understand why this movie is getting so much attention.

[Warning: A few spoilers ahead]

My twin daughters are 13, which means I’ve seen Encanto about half a dozen times, and I’m not far behind that when it comes to Inside Out and Moana (I like all three). Our family has seen many animated films over the years and when a new one is released, it often goes on our list. The newest Pixar film, Turning Red, is the latest one to make it to our weekly movie night.

Pixar has a reputation for making movies with stunning animation and compelling stories. Turning Red scores pretty high on the former, though it’s not quite in the ballpark of Toy Story or Finding Nemo. When it comes to the story, however, this movie isn’t a stand out — at least in our view.

I did love that it’s set in Toronto — a city I used to live in, whose streets, landmarks, and skyline are so familiar. The film’s main character, 13-year-old Mei Lee, is a second generation Chinese Canadian, the only child of parents who run a temple in Chinatown. All seems well in her world except that her supportive friends wish she was more available after school to have some fun — and she’d like that, too.

Instead, Mei does what’s expected of her — helping to clean the temple and spend time with her parents, a loving but overbearing mother, and a passive but kindly father. She wants to be more independent but there are expectations on her that she feels compelled to uphold and follow.

The trouble comes when Mei, who has entered puberty, begins to transform into a large red panda every time she feels intense emotion. Which is often, because she’s an excitable, boy-crazy, enthusiastic young teen who has yet to learn how to navigate her feelings. Mei learns that this red panda problem runs in her family: all of the women on her mother’s side are “cursed” with this phenomenon and the only way to remedy it is to undergo an ancient ritual to exorcise the panda forever. 

But, of course, things don’t quite go as planned. 

Before seeing the film, I told my daughters that we should expect (based on what I’d read) teen rebelliousness, disobedience, bad attitudes, and ancestor worship. And while all of that shows up more or less in different parts of the film, we were expecting it to be worse, and in the end were left wondering why there are so many hot opinions floating around about this movie.

But since we’re talking about it, a few things did stand out.

The good … and not so good

The movie does have some sweet moments — like the caring and encouraging talk Mei has with her father, and the support Mei’s friends quickly offer when they discover her panda problem.

But we were appalled by Mei’s mother’s cluelessness when it came to embarrassing her daughter. My daughters couldn’t believe any mom would spy on her kids at school, wave a box of sanitary pads in front of her daughter’s class, or drag her daughter into a convenience store to confront a boy she has a crush on. We all agreed that Mei’s mother loved her and meant well, but we squirmed at some of her behaviors.   

We also thought the plot went off the rails. The red panda problem was amusing at first but eventually turned into a bit of a mushroom trip. Not that I’d personally know about mushroom trips, in case you’re wondering, but it made the movie seem stranger as it went on.  

Yes, there was ancestor worship, mixed in with some magic, polytheism, and even a little Zen Buddhism. For some Christian parents, this is the most offensive part of the film, but watching rituals and traditions from other religions or belief systems is not a deal breaker in our family — it provides opportunities for conversation. And in the case of Turning Red, anything serious the writers may have been trying to convey about the spiritual world was overshadowed by the crazy large panda problem.

What annoyed me more were a few too many lines that seemed completely unnecessary. One of Mei’s friends says, “[My parents] called it stripper music. What’s wrong with that?” At another point, Mei and her friends are at a party where Destiny’s Child’s song Bootylicious is playing and later in the film Mei’s red panda does a lot of twerking. Mei tells her mom “I like boys. I like loud music. I like gyrating. I’m 13. Deal with it!”

The line I found most grating, however, was in the movie’s last scene when Mei is about to go out looking half-human and half-panda and her mom says: “You’re not going out like that, are you?” And Mei responds:

“My panda, my choice, Mom,”

I’m sure that phrasing sounds familiar.

And are we also supposed to buy that a 13-year-old should do whatever she wants, whenever she wants?

Also, the answer to being an overbearing mother with rigidly high expectations is not to transform into a permissive parent.

The bottom line

Ultimately, my own 13-year-old girls didn’t like this movie. They reacted negatively to how boy-crazy Mei and her friends are, and the obsession they have with sneaking out to see a boy-band concert.

Granted,my girls are horse crazy, not boy crazy, and they’re homeschooled, so there was just a whole lot they couldn’t relate to.

For me, the story seemed more geared to a “Tiger Mom” family, more relatable for second generation North Americans who may find their parents’ values at odds with the dominant culture to which they want to belong. And kids who attend school where they spend most of their day with peers can no doubt find themselves in many parts of the story — although it’s a good reminder that not all kids are the same, and they don’t all have the same issues.

In the end, though, my daughters and I were confused about why this movie has so many people talking. For all its big emotions and giant red pandas, it left us with a gigantic feeling of … well … meh.

I guess for now we’ll be re-watching Encanto. But don’t worry, I will not talk about Bruno.

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