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Pixar’s ‘Turning Red’ is a love letter to the awkward teenage years

‘Turning Red’ is a story of the growing pains of adolescence through the lens of a 13-year-old Chinese Canadian girl

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Poster of “Turning Red.”

Poster of “Turning Red” with Meilin as the red panda.

The Walt Disney Co.

Rated PG. Running time: 1 hour, 39 minutes. Watch on Disney+.

The journey to womanhood can be a complicated process. Limbs grow, curves swell and worst of all, emotions rage on. Puberty is transformational.

Heroine Meilin “Mei” Lee also experiences all the traditional growing pains. But there is one more thing — she turns into a cuddly red panda with curly whiskers every time she feels an intense emotion.

“Kinda like the Incredible Hulk but cuter,” is how Pete Docter, Pixar’s chief creative officer, described the character.

Pixar’s “Turning Red” comes across as a love letter to the awkward teenage years that juggles the ultimate truth about puberty — it’s a universal yet deeply mortifying and personal experience, as Wendy Ide wrote for The Guardian.

Meilin, a 13-year-old Chinese Canadian, is set on pleasing her mother, Ming Lee, played by Sandra Oh from “Grey’s Anatomy.” She confronts growing older in the early 2000s with her friends by her side, all the while obsessing over their favorite boy band, 4*Town, which sounds like a version of the Backstreet Boys.

‘Turning Red’ broke industry barriers

This coming-of-age story is directed by Domee Shi, the first Asian woman to helm a Pixar movie solo. She also wrote and directed Pixar's “Bao,” an Oscar-winning short film about a Chinese Canadian woman suffering from empty nest syndrome.

It is also Pixar’s first movie with an Asian girl as the lead, with Meilin played by Rosalie Chian. Her group of friends include tomboy Miriam, played by Ava Morse (“Ron’s Gone Wrong,” 2021); deadpan Priya, played by Maitreyi Ramakrishnan (“Never Have I Ever,” 2020); and fiery Abby, played by Hyein Park, a voice-acting newcomer. The group of girls all have their own signature colors — green, yellow, purple, and, of course, red.

The movie also explores a different and unique animation style, blending Japanese anime with Pixar’s detail-rich style. Viewers can expect pastel colors and energetic characters with extreme reactions.

In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Shi said she grew up watching shows from the ’90s like “Sailor Moon,” “Pokémon” and “Fruits Basket,” and this movie captures their “romantic and dreamy” element.

“I’ve always loved how colorful and expressive anime is. How they really exaggerate facial features and character reactions, and you really feel what the characters are feeling at any given moment,” she said.

For example, Meilin’s eyes literally sparkle when she’s bursting with joy, as for her mother, she turns into a giant red panda full of rage, a quirk that apparently runs in the family.

Finding belonging in Asian culture

Meilin’s family runs a shrine in Toronto, where they worship their ancestors and burn joss sticks at the family altars. Her mother is a tiger mom, watching her daughter like a hawk and falling into the stereotype about Asian parents.

Like other Disney films that celebrate Asian culture, like “Raya and the Last Dragon,” “Mulan,” “Moana,” “Big Hero 6” and “Lilo & Stitch,” the latest by Pixar takes a closer look into the Asian identity.

When Meilin is in trouble, her grandmothers and aunties take it upon themselves to help. Meeting their niece, one auntie pinches her face and says, “She’s gained weight,” while another says, “She’s lost weight,” in typical Asian-auntie style.

The red panda, native to Nepal, China and the eastern Himalayas, is featured in a hunting scene on a Chinese Chou Dynasty scroll from the 13th century, making it the oldest known drawing of the animal. In some parts of China, the red panda’s bushy tail is considered good luck in wedding ceremonies. Other than that, these animals don’t play a major role in Chinese mythology, as depicted in the movie.

Whether the panda element is a marketing gimmick or not, it works, especially when the furry creature is flying around different neighborhoods in Toronto.

‘Turning Red’ is more mature than most Pixar movies

The movie skews towards an older tween or early teen audience, as opposed to other Pixar films like “Finding Nemo” or “Ratatouille,” even though it is rated PG.

For one, Meilin and her group of friends have crushes on the 4*Town boyband members. Ming even catches her daughter drawing fan art where she is kissing one of the boys.

In one scene, Ming shows up to Meilin’s school with a box of pads, in case her daughter needs more during her period. Teen hormones and puberty remain a major theme in the movie, so if you haven’t had “the talk” with your little ones, this may not be the movie for you.

The movie’s violence is mostly linked with the red panda. When it gets angry, it can damage property and come close to causing harm to people.

As for language, the extent of harsh words is three uses of “heck” and one “sucks.” Other bullying words include “dork,” “narc,” “brainwashed,” “jerkwad,” and “butthead,” Ming makes a comment about a boy and says he does “drugs all day.”

Ming and Meilin struggled with their mother-daughter relationship but as the movie progressed, open and honest communication led them to find common ground.

A mostly all-female and extremely diverse cast — with those of Chinese, white, South Asian and Korean identities — paired with a female director, makes this movie a great addition to Women’s History Month celebrations. Young women going through awkward parts of puberty while holding on to female friendships and role models for strength are some recurrent themes from which young adults can learn.

Overall, this latest Pixar movie is universally relatable while exploring coming of age as an Asian in the pastel-colored city of Toronto.

Available to stream on Disney+.