Turning Red: A Chinese Canadian Story
A few weeks ago, I watched Disney’s newest animated movie, Turning Red, an Asian American story set in early aughts Toronto. I didn’t find it to be the groundbreaking story that it was heralded as, but I thoroughly enjoyed it as the movie for me. Since my most-read blog post is about Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, I think it’s worth reviewing Turning Red as well.
The movie is about a thirteen-year-old Chinese Canadian girl named Mei living in Toronto’s Chinatown. Her problems are typical of a second generation Canadian immigrant: balancing parental expectations and personal needs, but also making friends, dealing with bullies, and reveling in her newfound teenage freedom. The one catch is a family curse that causes the women in her family to turn into giant red pandas when experiencing strong emotion. The solution is to perform a ritual to seal the red panda away, but these plans go awry when Mei discovers that her friends and classmates love her panda fursona, and she decides to exploit it to make money for concert tickets. This leads to the inevitable conflict between Mei and her mother, climaxing in a giant red panda fight, but tensions are predictably resolved by the time the movie ends.
Turning Red is the latest from the Disney-Pixar media machine. Though I refer to it as such, Pixar Animation and Disney Animation are technically distinct studios: Pixar movies are perceived to be a little more innovative and have a little more depth, whereas Disney movies are more fairytale-like. Pixar traces its lineage from Toy Story, Monsters, Inc. and Finding Nemo, whereas Disney derives its heritage from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Pinocchio, and Dumbo. After Disney’s purchase of Pixar in 2006, the differentiation became increasingly difficult to see: Big Hero 6 and Zootopia seem to bear some Pixar influence, whereas Finding Dory, Cars 3, and Toy Story 4 carry the weight of the Disney money-making juggernaut.
This differentiation is important later on into this review, but my first reaction after hearing about the movie was “finally a movie tailor-made for me!” It seems that Disney-Pixar has been on a tear of representation for the last ten years. After Frozen, not a single original movie with humans has had a white lead: Big Hero 6 (Asian American), Moana (Polynesian), Coco (Mexican), Soul (African American), Raya and the Last Dragon (Southeast Asian), Luca (Italian, I’m stretching a little here, but bear with me), and Encanto (Colombian). It seemed that it was only a matter of time before there was the perfect movie for me, and with Turning Red, there finally was.
Directed by Domee Shi, a Chinese-Canadian herself, Turning Red was set up for success. With Metacritic giving it it a 83, it was assuredly a critical success. One review that received more attention than it should have called it “limiting” because of the identity of the main character, and was promptly removed. I can’t speak much to how much less I would have appreciated it if I wasn’t a Chinese Canadian, but a large part of why I enjoyed the movie came from its setting and choice of subject. The movie captured Toronto’s Chinatown perfectly, complete with streetcars and grocery stores, the CN tower and Skydome decorating the skyline.
The most Torontonian part of the movie however, is Lester B. Pearson Middle School. Though I don’t think a school with that name exists downtown, it certainly is a possibility, since I have a couple of friends who went to two different schools in Ontario with that same name. The name sounds right, just like its inhabitants feel right. The turbaned security guard, the Polish gym/math teacher, and Mei’s diverse group of friends: a Korean girl, and Indian girl, and what could be a Jewish girl. This is an exemplar of Toronto diversity; though some will point to this as evidence that Disney-Pixar media is on some “alt-left identity politics crusade”, this is what Toronto is like, and it is beautiful.
At this point, Asian Americans have been commercialized and given enough meaningful roles onscreen that representation doesn’t impress anymore. At the same time, a well-done Chinese Canadian story is thrilling because it hits all the buttons for me. I wonder if the same is true for others: in the same way that I can learn more about different people and cultures when watching foreign film, I hope others are open enough to consider Disney-Pixar’s broad diversity of cast identity and culture as such. I posit further that these movies are still being made because they address a market demand, whether by audiences of the culture depicted in the movies or ones of different cultures. After all, a liberal agenda has to be funded by capitalism.
It’s great that Pixar is continuing in its tradition of pushing the boundaries of animation and what counts as a family movie. Disney makes children’s movies. Pixar makes family movies, to be consumed by the family together, and are intended to be enjoyable by the parents as well. With Turning Red’s obvious callbacks to the turn of the century such as Tamagotchis, boybands, and Vince Carter jerseys, there was no doubt that this film certainly pandered to the adults in the room. This makes the common complaint of the movie’s inclusion of “uncomfortable” topics such as menstruation and teenage rebellion even more absurd. Rather, this is a perfect launchpad for such conversations between parents and their children.
The movie also depicts an unhealthy relationship between an overbearing mother and filial daughter, which seems to be inherited, like the family curse. This is a unique take on the perennial parent-child conflict in all Asian-American media; the only thing that is perhaps more emblematic is the bamboo forest, of which Turning Red has in spades as well. Shang-Chi, Free Food For Millionaires, The Farewell, Interior Chinatown, Tiger Tail, Minari, and every other Asian American story, whether bildungsroman or not, contains this theme. Turning Red however, shows this conflict as a generational trauma of sorts, parents who learned from their parents, as Mei’s mother has the same issue with her own mother.
This takes the fault from the parent and instead makes it out to be a cultural conflict to be resolved. Turning Red maintains that strict and demanding parenting is unreservedly bad, or at least unfit for modern Western society, but portrays it not as the choice of the individual parents. Whether Asian parenting is relevant in Western society or not is another discussion, but that the blame is placed where it should be is a huge step. Of course, the responsibility now given to Mei is not only to fix the relationship with her mother, but also to heal the generational trauma represented by the red panda. That might be a heavy burden for a thirteen-year-old viewer to bear, but is certainly appropriate for the adults watching the movie.
Discussions of corporate strategy and overarching themes aside, Turning Red was a great movie. Even though I find it hard to objectively evaluate, as much of my enthusiasm has to do with the Toronto theme, I think it introduces identities and issues in a nuanced light. But small matter, because for once, the world has made a movie for me. If I wanted it to be any more bespoke, I’d have to write it myself.