Pressures, Parenting and Pandas: Let’s Talk about Pixar’s “Turning Red”

Pixars Turning Red. In this 2022 film, Meilin Lee transforms into a red panda whenever she experiences any strong emotions. Through her panda form, Mei learned how to adopt her own personality apart from her mothers standards and strictures.

Used with permission from Pixar Studios under fair use

Pixar’s “Turning Red”. In this 2022 film, Meilin Lee transforms into a red panda whenever she experiences any strong emotions. Through her panda form, Mei learned how to adopt her own personality apart from her mother’s standards and strictures.

Maggie Craig, Associate Editor

(*The following review contains potential spoilers for the Disney-Pixar film Turning Red.)

Pixar’s newest release, Turning Red, first premiered in theatres worldwide on March 1st and made its debut on Disney’s streaming service, Disney+, on Friday, March 11th. This Pixar film about a 13-year-old Chinese-Canadian girl took the Internet by storm due to its themes of family, tradition and honor. 

The basic premise of this film centers around 13-year-old Meilin “Mei” Lee (Rosalie Chiang), a hardworking student and model child for her parents. She doesn’t do anything that upsets her mother in any way, and she constantly sacrifices her wants and desires for her family, convincing herself that her family comes before anything else. But when her mother embarrasses her in front of her classmates, Mei discovers a strange curse that runs in her family: whenever she feels a strong emotion, whether positive or negative, she transforms into a gigantic red panda. 

But the emotionally triggered red panda spirit isn’t the curse it first appears to be.  Throughout the course of the movie, Mei discovers her real self through her red panda spirit and sheds the personality that her (sometimes overbearing) mother has crafted for her. Turning Red’s general message for its younger audience is about growing up and finding oneself despite parents’ expectations. 

It’s a powerful message that has caused controversy because many parents disagree with it. Through the course of discovering herself in the movie, Mei rebels against her parents, gets bad grades and lies, which makes the movie appear as if it’s encouraging children to do all of these things. 

However, parents who believe that’s the entire point of the film are missing the actual theme of the story. Turning Red tackles generational trauma, specifically within immigrant families, and the general message about growing up is only one facet of the film’s intentions. In reality, Turning Red’s moral of the story is meant for parents rather than their children.

Video used with permission from Pixar under fair use. Asian representation. Many of the characters from ''Turning Red'' are of Asian descent. The protagonist, Meilin Lee, became the first main Asian protagonist in a Pixar film.

Unlike Pixar’s 2021 film, Luca, which talks about seeking adventure and exploring the unknown through sea monsters, or Pixar’s 2020 film Soul , in which “souls” comment on the meaning of life, Turning Red speaks directly to immigrant mothers through Mei’s mother, Ming (Sandra Oh), about how they shouldn’t burden their children with their own wants and desires.

While Mei learns the lesson that she isn’t required to be her mother’s perfect girl, it’s Ming who has to learn the real lesson of the movie. When Ming experiences difficulties controlling her own red panda, it’s Mei who comforts her and tells her mother that she’s enough and to embrace her imperfections. Together, they learn that they are more alike than they originally thought. Over time, Ming realizes she was trying to be a “perfect” daughter when in reality she simply carried the burdens of her mother’s pressures.

At the end of the movie, Ming and Mei reconcile and Ming learns how to loosen her grip on Mei, while Mei begins to genuinely enjoy spending time with her family without the pressures of Ming’s expectations. Turning Red ultimately tells the story of the consequences of authoritarian parenting, which pulls away from the nurturing aspect of parenting and focuses on obedience and discipline.

When Mei does rebel against her mother, it’s to go to a concert, an event that other children her age partake in. As a Filipino-American, the scene where Mei-Mei and her friends all scheme to have a “sleepover” but plan on going to a concert instead was something that hit very close to home for me. 

Some Asian parents don’t see value in having friends or hanging out or having fun, since they believe that success is the ultimate goal in life. My own parents have accused me sometimes of placing more importance on my friendships rather than my family, similar to what Ming does to Mei in Turning Red. In fact, when the film began with the message “honor your parents,” I didn’t know where this movie was going. But, I finally understood that it was an ironic commentary on first-generational filial piety. That opening sequence was meant to bait parents into sticking around and watching it with their children, only to find out that they were the ones the message of the movie was targeting all along. 

Overall, Turning Red is charming and witty, and deals with generational trauma in the best way possible—with gigantic red pandas. It has easily become one of my favorite Pixar films of all time, and it’s finally a message that I can apply to my own life. As much as I adore Up and its message of seeking adventure or Inside Out’s susceptibility to change, those are themes that are harder for me to relate to as a 17-year-old. 

On top of that, from the security guard at their school to Mei’s school friends, Turning Red is filled to the brim with Asian representation. And as much as I would’ve loved to see a Filipino character in a Pixar movie, this film is a large step for the Asian community, and I can’t wait to see what else Pixar has in store for Asian-Americans moving forward.