You Know What’s Up | Maxine Mah
Last Friday night, I laid stomach-down on my bed with my laptop nearly falling into the crevasse between my desk and headboard. I opened up Disney+ to what I thought would just be a fun, two hour distraction while I waited for the next day’s Wordle to upload.
I’ve always been a huge fan of Pixar movies. Starting at Monsters Inc., a film that was released three years before I was born, I realized that the storytellers at Pixar held the incredible ability to make nearly anyone watching cry their eyes out due to the horde of life-lessons hidden beneath the cover of an animated kid’s movie. And of course, as an incredibly sensitive teenage girl – who cries at nearly every slight inconvenience or major life change – I revere any work of art that makes me ugly cry every time I watch it; especially those that are inexplicably simple on the outside.
So of course, I was extremely excited for Pixar’s new movie, Turning Red, to come out; not only because it’s literally Pixar, but also because it’s about an overachieving East Asian girl grappling with generational trauma and the journey to utmost perfection in every aspect of her life – which sounds pretty familiar to me.
Turning Red was also directed by Domee Shi, who was a large contributor to other Pixar movies such as Inside Out, Toy Story 2, and created the short film Bao which was shown before Incredibles 2, the first ever Pixar short film to be directed by a woman. Bao is about empty nest syndrome: the loneliness a parent feels once their child has grown up and “left the nest.” It won the Oscar for Best Animated Short Film and also made me actually sob in the middle of the theater. Needless to say, I was fully prepared with a box of tissues for Shi’s first feature film.
Turning Red is set in Toronto, Canada, 2002, and follows Meilin Lee, a Chinese-Canadian eighth grade girl. Because of the Y2K setting and the fact that Meilin is 13, the movie has a cute, cringey aesthetic -- plenty of Tamagotchi rip-offs, flip-phones, and quirky outfits to go around. Meilin is also a complete over-achiever. The opening scene shows her walking to the bus stop, wearing her backpack and carrying her flute case with a sticker that says “THIS GIRL LOVES MATH.” To get even more Y2K, there’s a massive boy-band that’s the center of the movie’s main conflict. “4-TOWN” is a five member band with featured songs written and produced by Billie and Finneas Eilish.
The story revolves around her relationship with her family. She lives at her family’s temple, with her mom who projects her own wishes and dreams onto Meilin -- always pushing her to be the most respectful, the most talented, the most bright, simply the perfect picture of an Asian daughter. Her dad is sweet and caring but a pushover, not saying much, but observing the change in Meilin as she grows. Of course, the big twist in the movie is that all the women in Meilin’s family can turn into a red panda when they feel any extreme emotion -- not the best for a 13 year-old going through adolescence. While I don’t want to spoil the entire movie, nor project my own trauma, Turning Red was the portrait of many, many, POC families.
Meilin strives for perfection, at least in the eyes of her mom. She tries extremely hard in everything she does, just so she can come home and bring a smile to her mother’s face. Her mother, Ming, is a typical tiger mom. She constantly worries about her only daughter, never letting her hang out with her friends or listen to pop music in case she gets hurt or poorly influenced. She’s unafraid to rat out a convenience store worker if she thinks they’ve been hurting her daughter, and even follows Meilin around town to make sure she’s safe. Mei’s father is quiet, but observant, noticing her growth and subtlety giving her advice along the way.
As the movie comes to a close, Mei and Ming resolve their differences and agree that growing up doesn’t mean growing apart -- a concept that many Asian families struggle to agree on. And as the movie progresses, we see the divide between family and friends that starts to separate the Lee family during their final conflict. The choice between losing your closest friends, or disrupting the childhood pietal bond with your parents was the split decision Meilin was forced to make; but in all cases, saving both is never impossible.
While Turning Red wasn’t necessarily the best Pixar movie ever, it was incredibly relatable and moving all the same. The commentary on Asian ancestry and POC families, the Y2K references sprinkled throughout, and of course, the cute signature animation style of Pixar definitely made this film worth watching. And if anything, it might open your eyes to your relationships with the people around you -- unfortunately without a massive Red Panda in the way.