Warning: This review contains spoilers.
I will be the first to admit I was not initially looking forward to Turning Red. As a long-time Disney fan, most of the 2020’s Disney films have ranged from disappointing and/or forgettable to out-rightly bad for me. I think Onward is an underrated gem, but I was underwhelmed by Soul, Raya, and Luca. And that is saying nothing of the convoluted mess that was Frozen 2.
Those recent films had the always-excellent Disney & Pixar visuals and some very interesting story concepts, but the overall execution fell short of the signature “Disney magic” feeling for me. So much so that I couldn’t muster a desire to watch Encanto despite its critical praise and commercial success because it gave me a strange feeling of “sameness” to its predecessors.
I was suffering from a kind of Disney fatigue brought on by an onslaught of live-action Disney remakes, a slew of sequels, and original films that left little to no impact on me. Despite all of this, I opened Disney Plus on Friday, March 11, to watch the new Disney Pixar feature film Turning Red.
Turning on Turning Red
From the initial trailers and visuals, I could see the concept was at least different. We meet a young girl periodically “turning red” and transforming into a giant red panda. I couldn’t guess how or why this would be the case, but I could expect a possible series of comical mishaps as the heroine attempts to hide her red panda from her parents and the rest of the world, of course leading to an eventual dramatic “reveal.”
However, this film left me surprised. After initially trying to hide her (albeit fluffy and adorable) beast, the film’s plot caught me off guard by revealing lead Meilin‘s parents are indeed very aware of her panda and the source of the magic from which it originates. Stopping me in my tracks when her father sees his daughter in panda form and asks in disbelief, “It happened already,” I was further surprised when the film borrowed a page from 1985’s Teen Wolf, with Meilin’s monster not being a secret to her peers and in fact gaining her wider popularity in school.
Most surprising of all to me was how a movie with a somewhat ridiculous concept could deliver a film led by–let’s be honest–an obnoxious lead and deliver a beautiful and genuine tale that examines womanhood, mothers & daughters, and even generational trauma in a way that is very powerful and builds on previous works.
Recognizing Meilin’s [Film and TV] Foremothers
Though the film traces the inner red panda of Meilin to her female ancestor who fought to protect the women of her family with a spiritual gift, Meilin as a character owes a lot to other ladies in film and television who came before her. Firstly, of course, is Disney Pixar’s own Merida of 2012’s Brave.
Merida does not only sport wild red hair that reflects her ferocious inner spirit, but the film’s plot involves trying to fix a spell that transformed a main character into a slightly less fluffy and adorable but equally giant bear. The emotional core of the film is not really the journey of seeking to change back Queen Eleanor, but mending the rift between mother and daughter that has stemmed from their lack of understanding of one another. This mainly consists of Merida wanting to live her life on her own terms and her mother attempting to get her to more fully accept her responsibilities in her role as princess. Only when they see one another’s perspective through selfless love can they break the spell.
Turning Red builds on this theme by acknowledging both Meilin and her mother has a kind of beast inside them, and the fear of this beast has created a rift between 2 generations of mothers and daughters. Meilin’s mother Ming let her own red panda loose and harmed her relationship with her mother permanently. As a result, this left her inner child fragile and afraid. Determined not to let that happen to her own daughter, Ming cultivated a close relationship with Meilin but became overprotective and put a lot of inadvertent pressure on her daughter to live in a certain way.
Meilin, for her part, prefers to embrace the more chaotic parts of herself, which brings another Disney heroine to mind.
Mabel, Gravity Falls
Meilin bears more than several similarities to Mabel Pines of Disney Chanel’s Gravity Falls (2012-2016). Meilin and Mabel both sport an impressive sticker collection, a crew of colorful best friends, a favorite boy band they obsess over constantly, and an ill-fated fantasy of a merman boyfriend. They also share nearly constant wide-mouthed smiles, positive can-do attitudes, love of family, and passion for karaoke.
Turning Red expands on this character archetype and, like the mother-daughter storyline of Brave, enriches it on a deeper level. Meilin and Mabel are both extremely driven, kind-hearted, and unapologetic about their positive outlooks. Many people in their respective universes and audiences alike may find that obnoxious. These big bright, loud, boy-crazy girls with a tendency to wind up in supernatural situations while dealing with their burgeoning womanhood are a lot. And they deal with a lot.
But whereas Mabel’s character arch consists of her finding her identity outside of being a “pair” alongside her twin brother Dipper, Mei is grappling with finding her identity among centuries of women in her family who have all had to tame their inner pandas. She “accepts any and all labels” from her peers but is paralyzed with fear at the prospect of disappointing her mother. This is a story very similar to a heroine of a different beloved series, though not one from Disney.
Lane Kim, Gilmore Girls
Lane Kim is the best friend of Rory Gilmore, from the hit series Gilmore Girls (2000-2007) and its 2016 Netflix sequel series A Year in the life. Throughout the series, Lane is looked after by the ever-watchful eyes of her strict Korean-American Seventh Day Adventist Christian mother, Ms. Kim. Despite this, she has a rich secret life.
Underneath her floorboards are a wealth of CDs from bands her mother would never approve of, her free time is often spent secretly engaging in activities like eating junk food, and in her best friend’s garage is the drum set she practices on with her rock band- a band whose other members are BOYS (insert scandalized gasp here). Like Lane, Meilin is conflicted as she loves her mom and feels gratitude for all she has done for her but is drawn to her passion for music and, most especially, the acceptance and love she feels with her friends. Lane Kim goes through a long journey with her self-identity and her relationship with her mother, as her show had seven seasons to do so. But astoundingly, Turning Red does justice to this character archetype in a single film.
Mei’s long struggle is one that many daughters can recognize: She has Merida’s rebellious spirit and Mabel’s ferocious individuality. But, like Lane, she can only show these traits in secret as she is overcome by a fear of letting her mother down, hiding her real-life under her bed, and covering up her desire to attend concerts and parties with a series of lies.
Meilin’s mother, like Ms. Kim, encourages her daughter to engage actively in spiritual life. She wants her to do well in school and does not want her to waste time on things like boys. Though they both go overboard at times, they clearly love and want what is best for their daughters. Only when confronting the lies, can both daughters open up about their authentic selves. Despite the danger of possibly losing their mothers forever, their relationships are stronger than ever.
Turning Red is at its core a coming-of-age tale for a young woman named Mei. But it also manages to tackle culture, motherhood, friendship, and more in a very personal, surprisingly grounded tale with bright, expressive visuals. It’s a story that not only echos that of previous heroines and the real-life director herself, but–on some level–of girls everywhere. Girls who grew up while learning to cope with our bodies changing, our feelings becoming more extreme, and while our own identities brought us farther away from our families. Mei embodies these things and endures them with an infectiously positive attitude, taking the good along with the bad. And for that, I love her, and her film.