[REVIEW] ‘Turning Red’: Pixar’s Puberty Metaphor Turns Sour (Maybe Mild Spoilers)

Going into 2022 one of my most anticipated movies of the year was the latest Pixar film Turning Red. In fact, when it was first announced at the Disney investor presentation I made the promotional image of Mei Lee and her panda my wallpaper on my phone because I thought it looked so charming.

Unfortunately now I have seen Turning Red I must own to being very disappointed by the film and in fact it is the first Pixar film I’ve outright disliked (yes even Cars 2 has a bonkers sensibility I mildly enjoy). I even watched it a second time just to make sure of my response and yep this one isn’t for me.

Let’s talk about the positives. First, I like the idea of a family film trying to tackle puberty and anxiety in an honest and straight-forward way. How they succeeded at that is another question but I am sure there will be a lot of people who will connect with Mei Lee and her family’s journey. I also love the representation and seeing not only a Chinese-Canadian family but also Mei’s diverse friend group.

Also the animation is outstanding as is usually the case with Pixar. I know its received lots of chatter online, but I enjoyed the anime feel especially with the eyes and transformation of the characters from human to animal. The fur on panda Mei is so lush and cuddly that I’m sure it will be the source of many plush Disney toys to come.

Part of my problem with Turning Red I must own to my aversion for whiney teen coming of age movies to begin with. Movies that others love like The Edge of Seventeen I find insufferable and annoying. If you love those kind of stories you’ll probably enjoy Turning Red more than I did.

But my personal taste aside, while bold, the whole metaphor Turning Red uses didn’t really work. The idea is Mei Lee comes from a family where upon her first period the girls turn into a red panda when they are upset. While the concept of a period making someone ‘turn red’ is a bit on the nose it could have been effective but the story has problems.

First of all, the mother, Ming, is unhinged and unreasonable. For example, in one scene she lambasts a convenience store clerk Mei has a crush on because Mei has drawings of him in her sketchbook. Not only would this be incredibly embarrassing it doesn’t make sense. Why should he be responsible for her drawings/crush and is her liking someone a character flaw? How could she possibly feel this is a correct response to a basic life experience? Also if you knew this was going to happen wouldn’t you try to prepare your daughter a little bit?

Mei is also a lot of personality and what some will find endearing I often found grating.

Such strange behavior made me annoyed with the characters and then the fighting between Mom and daughter got old real fast. But beyond that the metaphor doesn’t really work. So she turns into a panda when she starts her period but there’s a whole ritual that makes the panda go away? I realize this is a magical realism story but just inventing rituals for cultures and religion (Mei’s family owns and operates a temple) is a strange choice and then the plot of her becoming a party attraction for a bully’s birthday mixed in with the family drama fell flat.

The thing is none of the inspirations for the panda are within Mei’s control. She gets her period- can’t control. She deals with anxiety and emotions- can’t control. She goes through puberty- can’t control. Teens will relate to this but unfortunately they don’t have a ritual that will stop all of these tough things. Mei decides to embrace the panda but all of us normal people don’t get that choice. It’s happening whether we like it or not. Evidently Mei’s mother has been suppressing her panda for years but then why was the ritual necessary? The ritual allows her to bring it back when she wants to? But then again how does that connect with actual teen struggles who can’t make their ‘pandas’ come and go when they want?

It seems like most critics didn’t mind this murky metaphor but it bothered me and kept me from fully embracing the film. I also didn’t connect with the humor of Turning Red or the focus on 2002 boy band called 4*TOWN. It’s a shame they set the movie in 2002 because an Asian KPOP type band like BTS would have been a fun way to bring in the culture rather than just generic boy band.

At the end of the day, I admire what director Domee Shi was going for with Turning Red but the script lets down that ambitious premise making for more of a mess than a masterpiece.  I hope you all enjoy it more than I did but this puberty metaphor gets a pass from me.

5 out of 10

Frown Worthy

PS- Turning Red should still have been played in theaters!

26 thoughts on “[REVIEW] ‘Turning Red’: Pixar’s Puberty Metaphor Turns Sour (Maybe Mild Spoilers)

  1. Wow, this sounds wild. I’ll be watching it but definitely curious now since the way you described it seems problematic. It sounds like either way I’ll have a lot of thoughts on this one!

    1. Yeah I think it’s one of those movies you either go with it’s intentions forgiving the flaws or they bug you

  2. I stopped reading after the beginning paragraphs just so I don’t spoil anything for myself, but wow, I’m intrigued now since this is the first Pixar film you’ve outright disliked! I have that already with The Good Dinosaur, so I wonder what I’ll think of this one.

      1. Well I’ve returned to this review after having seen the film myself so as not to spoil anything. So yeah, I also really hate this film and it’s my least favorite Pixar film, but it’s for different reasons than you. I did not find the animation to be good and I found the overall plot to be very thin and in need of something random every so often to further the plot. But my biggest problem was the overall message of the film that I felt looked down upon Eastern ideals/cultures and promoted them as “wrong” and promoted Western ideals/cultures as “right”. Yeah, I hate the film, lol!

      2. Yeah I agree with your reasons too. It’s just not a good film 😕

  3. Respect and admire your review, but this was so much fun! The character designs and reactions worked for every situation. No spoilers on the climax, but it went all out in where it was going. Nowhere near the level of Cars 2.

    1. I liked the animation. We agree there. The metaphor and the writing were my problem. Thanks for commenting

  4. It could be because I’m autistic, or because I recently read a Letterboxd review of Wreck-It Ralph arguing that it has unintentional metaphors for autism, but I saw quite a few things in Turning Red that I thought could be interpreted similarly: the protagonist displaying socially unusual behaviour when excited or anxious (like autistic stimming), the parent considering this unacceptable and pressuring the child to mask it, and the protagonist coming to feel that their condition is part of who they are and embracing its strengths. Even if that wasn’t what the filmmakers meant to do, it did help me connect with the film, and I ended up liking it a lot more than I expected.

  5. I loved the quirky animation style, as you’ve mentioned. It felt fresh and different (something Disney is lacking these days). I agree that the characters were very difficult to love, but I thought that played well into the puberty theme. The mother-daughter conflict was relatable to me, though overblown and tragically resolved. The message of the movie was confusing. It tried to address multiculturalism, perfectionism, family relationships, friend relationships, puberty, and….sexual repression I guess?

    I thought it was going to take the same turn as most coming of age stories – puberty comes and it’s messy and uncomfortable. The protagonist struggles and makes some bad decisions, but ultimately learns to accept his/her changing self in a healthy, and productive way. But nope. Mei lives in defiance of her parents and embraces her “panda” in an arguably destructive, anything goes sort of way.

    At the end of the movie, Mei cries, “my panda my choice.” This just further muddies the metaphor and brings a poor-taste political reference into a children’s movie.

    This film made Mei’s mom the villain. I hate it when the mom is the villain. They could have ended the story with the mom and the daughter growing closer in understanding and respect. But no. Mom is wrong and repressive and who cares what she has to say. This is an odd choice for a studio that markets itself to families.

    Our culture is undermining the parental role in a child’s development and education. I think parents are starting to push back.

    1. I dont even get My panda. My choice. Puberty isn’t a choice. It just happens. Same with your period. It’s weird

  6. I agree with everything you said. I did not enjoy this film. I think I (half heartedly) laughed twice. It just didn’t have the Pixar charm. Which really disappointed me!

    The Mother Daughter dynamic from Brave was SO much better. You left feeling the love Merida and Elinor had for each other, and how they had grown as characters. I felt like there was very little of that resolution in Turning Red.

  7. I think you’re missing that the implications are that traditionally women in her family don’t deal with the Panda in an honest and healthy way. It’s all a huge secret and leaves the young girl who has enough troubles in her life unable to process the panda when it comes unexpectedly. So, the breakthrough is to accept the panda instead of suppressing the notion that there is a panda and it being okay to feel human emotions that come with the panda.

    1. But if that’s the case where does the ritual come into play? The ritual makes the panda go away unless you don’t want it to go away but then you can make it come back? Puberty and your period just comes. My panda my choice doesn’t make sense to me

  8. It sets up this great metaphor for a topic that’s actually a perfectly reasonable and acceptable topic for the preteen audience of Pixar movies, and then it just…drops it. Mei turns into a red panda, and that’s about it. No real interest in playing around with the metaphor to give some insight into the emotional life of a teenage girl, like what you saw with Inside Out. After the half hour mark it’s no longer interested in being about puberty; it’s just a straightforward coming of age movie.

    Mei transforms when she loses control of her emotions, but once she comes up with a method to calm down – daydreaming about her friends idolizing her – she is no longer troubled by it in any way. The supposedly unmanageable nature of the panda is just dropped. She no longer unintentionally shifts even when she gets upset! I thought for sure that when she straight-up betrays her friends it was going to blow back on her calming mechanism – she can no longer reconcile her actions with the self-image that keeps her feeling in control – but nope. Completely forgotten. Enough Chekov’s Guns to fill a bunker.

    I know a Pixar movie is a dumb thing to be mad about and tomorrow morning I’ll have forgotten all about it, but every so often I see everybody I know rave about how great a movie is and when I sit down to watch it I’m just…what?

    1. I agree and what’s the point of the ritual if you can control it relatively easily

      1. Even if you steelman it and say the ritual represents an approach to growing up where you learn how to manage your emotions and express them appropriately, isn’t that…just Inside Out?

      2. What on earth? Plus its a ritual for an actual religion. This isn’t like Raya with a fake religion. They are just inventing rituals for real religions. I feel like I’m the only one who thinks that’s weird. Cultural appropriation?

    2. Yeah it’s the perils of being a movie fan. Sometimes we are left baffled at seemingly everyone’s different taste. LOL. Oh well!

  9. Just wanted to let you know- Mei does not actually get her period in the movie… her mom only THOUGHT Mei got her period. Getting your period has nothing to do with when the panda curse starts- since Mei never actually got her period.

    1. They didn’t explain that well if that is the case. The whole curse and ritual were very badly done imo

      1. I think John is right, Mom only thought that Mei got her period. If the period and the panda were related, then Mom would have known that the panda was behind the shower curtain. I agree it was not well done, nor did it make any sense.

      2. To me her not getting her period makes the movie worse. The Mom is even more unhinged and the ritual/metaphor makes less sense

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