The film opens with thirteen-year-old Mei Lee talking about her amazing life while on her way to school. She has a practically perfect academic record, acing all her school assignments and exams. She also has a great relationship with her family, even with her overbearing, but caring, mother.
Everything seems to be going well for her… that is, until her friends, Miriam, Priya, and Abby express that they have a crush on Devon, the convenience store clerk. Although she is resistant to him at first, Mei discovers that she also has strong feelings for him and draws pictures of him in her diary. When her mom stumbles across it and sees the pictures, she yells at Devon.
Mei has nightmares that make her turn into a red panda in real life. Humiliated about her animal transformation, she hides from her mom behind the shower curtains. She succeeds at hiding her red panda transformations for a while, especially around her friends, who notice her awkward behavior.
But when other students pick on her during class, because her mom shows up with a package of menstrual pads outside the building, Mei transforms into the red panda again, scares her classmates, and escapes from school.
She is devastated as to why this happens, particularly because her schoolmates saw it, and freaked out. Her mom reveals the reason why she experiences this—to protect her children during a war, their ancestor, Sun Yee, requested that deities turn her into a red panda. This has been passed down to every female, generation after generation, once she has gone through puberty.
Mei is angry to learn about this, and tries to destroy the sacred image of Sun Yee. But since strong emotions cause her to turn into the red panda, she works on staying calm. This is what needs to happen before she can have the curse removed, as every female descendant from Sun Yee went through before they removed that hex.
Mei succeeds with remaining calm, and performing the necessary challenges to succeed. But when she asks her parents if she can see 4*town, a band that her and her friends like, her mom says, “No! Absolutely Not!” This is due to her concern for Mei turning into a red panda there, and putting herself in danger.
As the story progresses, Mei’s transformation into a red panda leads to positive moments between her and her peers as they raise money to go to the 4*town concert, which is a few weeks away.
However, the concert happens to be on the same night that her family plans to host a ritual to remove her panda transformation powers. Mei has to make a quick decision about whether or not she wants to remove the curse.
I enjoyed this film a lot from the beginning to end. The concept of an Asian-Canadian girl living a normal life in Toronto until she turns into a red panda one day when her emotions become extreme is very unique.
This is also the first Pixar film in which the main character breaks the fourth wall, talking directly to viewers. This makes it stand out from the other films.
All the film’s characters were likable, even Mei’s mom. When she’s first introduced, she feels sorry for Mei, who is coming home late, and offers her some snacks. That shows how much she cares about making Mei comfortable.
There were also a few times when that “comfort” Mei’s mom expressed, backfired, like when she embarrassed her, especially at school. The Sikh security guard had to chase her away, which amused me since he didn’t want her to keep entering school grounds without checking in. He even tried to force her to leave when Mei and her friends were in the “after-school math club.”
The kids faked that in order to keep their secret of raising money for 4*Town from authorities. Once Mei’s mother was gone, the kids returned to their actual activities.
Yet, Mei’s mom has criticized 4*Town in front of Mei a few times before, and especially when she harshly forbade Mei from attending the concert. But hey, every character needs flaws.
Mei’s relationships with Miriam, Priya, and Abby were fun and sweet at the same time. Her friends each had unique personalities.
Miriam was a little sophisticated but enthusiastic at the same time. Priya was a bit dull but still caring. Abby was energetic and often silly.
This movie also had no villains, which is a trend that Disney has introduced in recent years, straying away from its traditional approach to storytelling. Rather, the antagonists are just good characters who don’t understand the protagonists, and won’t let them achieve their goals.
I admire this idea a lot. It’s not just unusual for Disney, or any movie company, to take this approach in their stories, but also real people.
We all deal with good people, including family members, who will not always let us do what we deeply desire at times. That can often lead to arguments, and the ones not allowing us to achieve what we desire may think that they’re being seen as “bad guys.”
I also found it interesting that the story was set in 2002 instead of in contemporary times (such as the year it was released, which is what many movies do). That being said, seeing characters use flip phones, video cameras, and other outdated technology felt a little bit strange. Most audiences, especially younger ones, would likely have expected to see smartphones, apps, and social media in the movie since these are some of the major technologies we use today.
Yet, I am a firm believer that writers or directors should get to choose to set their stories during years that they feel are best suited for their films – or for any reason. In fact, I wish those types of decisions were viewed as a way to teach audiences about the selected years instead of as a bug or awkward.
But there is a reason that Turning Red takes place in 2002. The film’s creators wanted to set the movie during a boy band era, since a big part of the storyline revolves around the band, 4*town. Boy bands were especially popular, starting in the late 90s and up to the early 00s.
However, other boy bands became popular after the early 2000s. There were The Jonas Brothers in the late 2000s, and One Direction in the 2010s. So, boy bands and their popularity can happen at any time.
Regardless of that, I don’t think setting Turning Red in a later time, like 2022, would have worked due to the importance of a character hiding something to achieve her goal. Smartphones and other forms of advanced technology make that practically impossible.
It would have been super-easy to share Mei’s panda transformation to see 4*town if the students have taken pictures and videos with smartphones. And they would certainly share them through social media and other apps.
That would have majorly interfered with Mei’s plan to achieve what she wanted badly. Mei’s mom would likely have grounded her for not only the videos and pictures that everyone shared, but she would have also received tons of phone calls from other parents. The story would likely have been too short, as well, since not much would happen after that. I don’t think the movie would have even been greenlit.
Not only did Mei yearn to see 4*Town in concert, but also be who she wants to be, and not somebody who feels that she has to impress her parents at all times.
That made the multiple twists and turns that occurred throughout the film even more intriguing. After all, unexpected events are always exciting. See the film for yourself to find out its surprises.
Although I loved this movie, I did notice that it contained some mature content, such as occasional explicit language that audiences wouldn’t normally expect in a PG-rated movie.
Many parents of young children also found this film inappropriate, as it also discussed puberty and menstruation.
But it’s not just Turning Red that’s making the film a bit explicit. The maturity of PG-rated movies have made a comeback in the 2010s (such as The Incredibles 2 in 2018), after nearly two decades of movies with that rating being very similar to the G-rating prior to the 2010s. I don’t know why that’s happening, especially because that’s what the PG-13 rating is for.
But most adults, like me, might not necessarily find mature language or puberty topics to be an issue. I certainly had no problem with it.
That type of content might be fine for older kids, too – even those as young as 10. As for children under that age, it’s probably worth considering their maturity level before they see Turning Red.
I gladly give this movie 5 out of 5 stars.