Turning Red REVIEW – 2000s Nostalgia

Turning Red is a fun, quirky coming of age tale.

Turning Red
Turning Red

Turning Red is about the perennial Asian struggle: the balance between familial obligations and individual desires. We’re encouraged to spend a lot of time at home and with our family, but as we get older, there’s now an inclination to venture out, to live a life completely independent from our familial relationships. Meilin (Rosalie Chiang) is 13 years old, and all her life, she’s put the needs of her mom Ming (Sandra Oh) before her own. When her friends invite her to go karaoke after school, she has to turn them down because of her obligations at the temple her family manages.

To Ming, Meilin is this innocent, unblemished child, and she plans to keep things that way for as long as possible. So she’s always hovering, lecturing Meilin about her friendship choices, as well as admonishing her about her interest in boys. I remember my horror when my mom discovered I was reading a Sweet Valley book entitled Elizabeth’s First Kiss – one’s burgeoning interest in the opposite sex is not something you want your Asian parents to be privy to.

After Meilin suffers a humiliating encounter facilitated by her mother, she wakes up the next day to discover that she’s turned into a red panda. The fact that this transformation occurs after Meilin demonstrates some interest in a cute boy makes the metaphor quite apparent – it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that it’s meant to signify a certain coming of age event. The fact that this red panda transformation is only passed down the female line adds credence to this. However, the metaphor also feels a bit muddled, since most of her female relatives have banished the panda, which doesn’t make sense if it’s meant to be symbolic of womanhood.

Meilin learns of the ritual she needs to partake in to get rid of the panda. In the meantime, she just has to live with it and find a way to get it under control. Initially there are some teething issues, but gradually she learns how to master the panda with help from her friends. All the moments between Meilin and her three friends Miriam (Ava Morse), Priya (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan) and Abby (Hyein Park) are so funny and over-the-top. Their extreme posing, fangirling over boyband 4-Town, and all the various shenanigans they get up to when Meilin decides to rebel against her mom are some of the most entertaining parts of the film.

Rebellion is always the first step towards agency and a sense of self. Meilin just wants an experience she can share with her friends, but all her mom can see is the danger and the lack of value that comes from being a screaming fangirl at a concert. When Ming’s own mother comes back into the picture, she realises that she’s recreating a similar dynamic in her relationship with Meilin. She doesn’t want to stifle her daughter, but letting go is a difficult thing. It’s important to see growing up not as separation, but an expansion; it’s also an opportunity to get to know the other people in your child’s life.

Because of its subject matter, Turning Red may not appeal to everyone. Compared to Pixar movies like Soul, which offered commentary on life, purpose and meaning, Meilin’s desire is a pretty niche one, and may be hard for some of us to relate to. For those of us who grew up in the age of tamagotchi and boyband mania, the film does stir up a certain sense of nostalgia. However, it speaks to a past version of me, not the person I am now. Turning Red’s a lot of fun to watch; it’s got humour, heart and the amazing vocals of Jordan Fisher – it just feels like a product of another time.

Review screener provided.

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Turning Red
Turning Red, like most Pixar films, is an enjoyable romp from start to finish. The central metaphor does feel like it needs a little work, though.