Illustration of Mei from Disney's 'Turning Red.'

‘Turning Red’ Marks a Turning Point for Disney

While the film, directed by Domee Shi, is the first from Pixar to be solely directed by a woman, its significance goes far beyond that.
March 21, 2022
8 mins read

Disney’s new movie, “Turning Red,” is different from anything Disney has ever made before.

Written by Domee Shi, “Turning Red” is Disney’s first film with a woman solely at the helm. Most would recognize her work as writer-director on the Pixar short “Bao” released in 2018. The eight-minute film follows a mother whose steamed dumpling comes to life. Recently an empty nester, she immediately takes to it, but “Dumpling starts growing up fast, and Mom must come to the bittersweet revelation that nothing stays cute and small forever.” While the premise may seem silly, Shi has a certain talent for writing subtly poignant, heart-wrenching scenes through the lens of the Chinese experience. Having won an Oscar for the short, there is no doubt Shi brought it again for “Turning Red.”

“Turning Red” premiered on Disney+ on March 11. With a budget of $175 million, the nine-figure movie was no doubt an investment for Disney, and it is the first female-centered film since the studio’s release “Brave” in 2012. The film centers on Mei Lee, voiced by Rosalie Chiang, a 13-year-old daughter born to traditional Chinese parents. Her mother is eerily familiar as the overbearing, overprotective mom, while her dad is far more amiable. Not only does her mother keep a close eye on Mei’s schoolwork, but she is also watchful of her social life and hopes to limit Western influence on her daughter. Mei doesn’t push back, though. Through and through she is the quintessential, perfect daughter, and she doesn’t seem to mind her mother’s watchful eye as she studies, gets good grades and helps at the family’s temple. Mei’s mother, Ming, voiced by Sandra Oh of “Grey’s Anatomy,” also has the ability to turn into a giant red panda, although this isn’t revealed until later.

Director Shi doesn’t only focus on the red panda curse. She gives life and autonomy to Mei, diversifying her personality and life through her friends and her passions. While helping run her family’s temple and grappling with her familial dynamics, Mei also has a trio of fangirl friends. They all share a love for a boy band named 4*town, who are on tour and coming to their town to play a concert. When Mei begs her mother to see 4*town and Ming swiftly denies her — embarrassing Ming in front of her classmates — the red panda curse is realized.

Oh, and Mei also just got her period.

The giant red panda transformation is certainly a more nuanced metaphor for puberty, but Shi goes further than that. She casually touches on the topic of menstruation, something that led to controversy among audience reviews. While this is usually a rather taboo topic in entertainment and media, Shi normalizes something that isn’t often talked about. And for a younger audience, especially girls, this is important.

The film takes a turn when Mei’s friend finds out about the family curse. As Mei only transforms when she feels intensely emotional, Ming tells her to suppress her feelings to suppress the panda. When her friends find out about her newfound ability, they don’t think differently of her, much to Mei’s surprise. In fact, they think her ancestral ability is really cool — and Mei soon becomes popular, enjoying the attention and friendliness of her peers. Mei grapples internally with how she views her own abilities, and while once embarrassed and bent on hiding it, Mei realizes that the panda could be a representation of her most real, least ashamed self.

“Turning Red” currently has 94% on the movie review site Rotten Tomatoes, and reviews are overwhelmingly positive. Representation is important in the film, but what Shi gets right in “Turning Red” is the heartfelt and authentic way in which she captures the indescribable lives that Chinese Canadian (and Chinese American) children live. Twitter was filled with tweets from Chinese Americans and Chinese Canadians during the premier, who pointed out specific aspects of the movie that made it feel all the more real (down to the mother’s love for Celine Dion, a staple for Chinese moms).

Shi’s ability to represent a variety of topics, from fangirling to menstruation to family dynamics within Chinese communities in North America, speaks to the ways that Disney is trying to change what it puts out. Representation is everything in 2022, and there is no doubt that media and major producers are taking note. Movies like “Crazy Rich Asians” have shown profound box office success, and demonstrate that movies starring Asian individuals and storylines can succeed. Even the movie “Parasite” was a success — although different, as a Korean-language foreign film — and turned attention to Asian movies. “Turning Red” comes on the heels of Disney’s “Encanto,” a movie about the diverse and often magical experiences of a family in Colombia, as well as the 2020 release of the live-action “Mulan.”

Perhaps the only critique of Disney’s newest release is that it wasn’t released in theaters. Fans can only stream the movie on Disney+, but the movie’s success was certainly a sign that it would’ve been well-received in an exclusive theatrical release. This may be attributed to struggling “slice of life” movies in theaters right now, as theaters are struggling to adapt to the pandemic. The year 2020 marked a 40-year low for the movie business, and it seems that major studios are still wrestling with the costs and benefits of putting a movie into theaters. After all, if no one goes to the movies anymore, streaming is far more advantageous. In fact, about “49% of pre-pandemic moviegoers are no longer going to multiplexes, and some of that contingent, roughly 8%, have likely been lost forever,” according to studies.

While the industry adjusts to new changes amid the pandemic, “Turning Red” gets everything right. So yes, it may just be the time to sign up for that Disney+ subscription.

Ally Xu, Northeastern University

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Ally Xu

Northeastern University

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