Movie Review: Turning Red

A picture showing Mei standing in front of her as a red panda both smiling wide with their hands on their hips.
Disney promotional image of Meilin (Mei) and her red panda spirit.

When it comes to babying around, I tend to be a little on the rambunctious side, and I think of myself as more of a toddler. Mobile, bratty, a little too intelligent for my own good- but still soaking up my pamps and never planning to let go of my pacifier. While I would call Turning Red a great movie for any ABDL to watch if you have an adult-baby in this specific toddler-esque-sweet-spot of ageplay, may I wholeheartedly recommend that you throw it on during a playtime session. That is, as long as you’re okay with dealing with a soggy diaper and possibly a crying toddler when it’s over. (I state under oath that I was definitely both soggy and crying at the end).

It’s got all of the things to keep your little babe involved in the story. Bright colors and fun pop culture references. A rich cultural story about family bonds. An inspiring narrative about growing up and how important your friends can be. AND A GIANT FLUFFY RED PANDA. I mean, what else is there to ask for? Now quickly, before I get into the meat of the story and the review, I want to warn that there WILL BE MANY SPOILERS in this article. If you’ve seen the movie or if you’re just cool with spoilers, by all means, read on. If you haven’t seen the movie and you think that the spoilers will bother you (and if you have like an hour and a half free), I implore you to please watch the movie first! It can be found on the Disney+ service, which is where I watched it.

The Turning Red logo next to Mei freaking out in her red panda form with her school id on.
A promotional image for Turning Red.

To get the technical jargon out of the way first, Turning Red was released earlier this year by Walt Disney and Pixar studios, their newest collaboration in a long line of successes.  The story is set in Toronto, Ontario, Canada in 2002, but it highlights the Chinese culture through its main character, Meilin Lee, or “Mei”. It is the first Pixar movie to center around an Asian character and is their first movie entirely directed by a woman, Domee Shi. In fact, many of the large roles involved in creating the movie were filled by strong women, including the Executive Producer, Lindsey Collins, and the screen-writer, Julia Cho (who I already knew and loved as a playwright. I highly recommend reading her play, “The Language Archive”).

Now I’ve warned you once, but just in case, this is where the major spoilers are coming because I’m about to go through a little synopsis of the movie plot.

From left-to-right: Abby, Priya, Mei, and Miriam posing to 4*Town while singing the name.
Mei and her friends; Miriam, Priya, and Abby.

We start with a fun introduction to Mei, a 13-year-old girl with a fantastic group of friends, a Tamagotchi strapped to her backpack, and unwavering confidence. She lives in Toronto with her over-doting parents at their family’s historic temple in the Toronto-Chinatown area. The temple is dedicated to their ancestor, Sun Yee, and the three of them work together at the temple as well, keeping it beautifully maintained and giving tours throughout the day. We also meet her friend group, Miriam, Priya, and Abby- 3 super sweet and confident girls-, and their mutual obsession- 4*Town. A 5 member boy band that feels like a mix of One Direction and BTS. When I was her age, I personally had an unhealthy love for the Jonas Brothers. And, like any 13-year-old, there’s an older boy she has a crush on. The cashier at the mini-mart on the corner, Devon. He’s 17, has a sexy blank expression in his eyes, and is a boy. All the requirements of a hunk when you’re 13.

One night, while she’s working on her homework, she starts to doodle a little on the side of her notebook. Once she’s done, she realizes she’s drawn a tiny shirtless Devon. Feeling overtaken by her pencil, she starts drawing more and more. Devon with muscles, Devon holding her, Devon and her kissing. But suddenly she hears her mother, Ming, coming down the hallway and panic sets in. Even though Mei tries to hide the notebook, her mother finds it, and all of the drawings. In a surge of Karen energy, Ming takes Mei down to the mini-mart and tells Devon to stay away from her daughter, embarrassing Mei in front of some of the kids from school, and slamming down all of the drawings in front of Devon, the one on top showing a depiction of him drawn into a sexy merman.-

Ming flipping through a notebook shocked at the drawings while Mei is panicking with embarrassment.
Ming shocked at the drawings Mei did as of crush.

I just have to interject for one second here and say that during this part of the movie, I BLUSHED like never before, because as I mentioned before, I was overly obsessed with The Jonas Brothers, and specifically Nick Jonas. I bought a purity ring for him. Not because I believed in purity rings. Just for Nick. And, instead of doing my homework at night, I wrote horrifying fan fiction about me living with the Jonas Brothers in which we had a room with a giant pool where, YES, a magical spell would allow us to become mermen once we hit the water. Some kind of mental Frankenstein between my obsession for the Jonas Brothers and for the Disney Channel Original Movie, “The Thirteenth Year.” (If you know, you know.) Anyway-

After her humiliating event at the mini-mart, Mei has a nightmare about Red Pandas, and in the morning, when she gets to her bathroom mirror, she sees that SHE has become a giant Red Panda. Sometimes she pops back into human-Mei, but it’s difficult for her to keep one form for very long, and it’s frustrating to her. After a second humiliation by her mother, this time in front of her whole class, Mei transforms into a Red Panda again, and runs through Toronto, all the way home.

A dream like view of the temple grounds from above.
A overshot of the temple grounds.

Back in the temple, her parents try to comfort her, and explain to her that this is something given to her by their ancestor, Sun Yee. To protect her family, she harnessed the strength of the Red Panda, and since then every daughter born has had the same transformation, when she’s coming of age. Even her mother, Ming. They also explain that while this was seen as a gift in their old country, since moving to a new land they have tried to suppress the gift, because it’s not understood in the same way. But there is a solution, a ritual they can perform to seal Mei’s Red Panda into a talisman, however that can’t be performed until the next Red Moon in about a month, on May 25th. So until then, Mei will have to keep the Panda at bay by herself, which is proving to be difficult because the Panda comes out when her emotions are heightened.

When her friends come to check on her the next day, they find out about Mei’s Red Panda. And while she thought this would scare them off and leave her without any friends, they love the Red Panda side of her without question, and this unconditional love helps her transform back into human-Mei, except she’s got some stylish red hair now. She discovers that with the help of her friends, she can keep the Panda down. But they also tell her during this visit that 4*Town is coming to Toronto on May 18th, just days before the Red Moon ritual. Feeling distraught, she tries to tell them to go without her, but they insist that no friend will be left behind.

It’s not so easy for Mei to convince her parents though, who are absolutely not on board with her going to a 4*Town concert, especially before her Red Moon ceremony, and especially when the ticket price is $200. Despite giving a presentation with a full projector about the wonders of 4*Town, Mei’s parents are unmoved. It becomes clear to the group that they’ll have to come up with the money for 4 tickets- $800- all by themselves.

Left-to-Right: Aaron T, Aaron Z, Robaire, Jesse, and Tae signed 4*Town poster.
A "signed poster" promotional image for Turning Red.

Mei’s Red Panda gets really popular with the kids at school, and the friends have a revelation that they should sell Red Panda merch to all of the kids at school, to raise the money for their 4*Town tickets. And although they get close, with a lot of hard work, it looks like they’ll only be able to afford 3 tickets, AND they've just found out that they got the date of the concert wrong, previously thinking it was on May 18th but realizing it was actually on May 25h- the very same night as the incredibly important Red Moon Ritual. Mei reluctantly tells her friends to go without her and Mei’s Aunties and Grandmother come to town so they can help with the Ritual.

They begin the ritual, but during it, Mei changes her mind, deciding that she doesn’t want to sever herself from her Red Panda side and trap it in a talisman, as the other women in her family had. She wants to live with her Red Panda and be her own person. Making the tough decision to not do what her family wants, she chooses her Panda and runs away from the Ritual, all the way to the 4*Town concert with her friends.

Back at the temple, Ming (Mei’s Mother) is humiliated by Mei’s choice to not finish her Red Moon Ritual, and the rush of anger and betrayal causes her own Red Panda to break free from her talisman. She’s enormous and stomps her way determinedly towards the concert.

At the concert, the group of friends is having an incredible time seeing 4*Town, who look like they’re flying like angels while they sing.- I saw the Jonas Brothers when I was 14 and I’m pretty sure they also flew. Or at least it felt like it.

Ming in her red panda form repulsed as Mei twerks in her red panda form to save the 4*Town concert.
Ming in her giant red panda form crashing the 4*Town concert.

But everything is interrupted when Ming busts into the arena, looking to get Mei and take her straight back home. The rest of Mei’s family catches up, and together they start another Red Moon Ritual there at the trashed 4*Town concert, and it takes all of Mei’s Aunties and her Grandmother letting their Red Pandas out to get a hold of Ming’s Red Panda, and one by one they seal their Red Pandas back into their talismans, all except for Mei, who has a final heartfelt conversation with her mother about being her own person, and wanting to live with her Red Panda, which Ming accepts, even if she doesn’t fully understand it. I think that the core of the movie can be summed up in this line that Mei says to her mother at this point: “I’m changing mom. I’m finally figuring out who I am. But, I’m scared it’ll take me away from you.”

Finally, we get a fun conclusion scene to the movie, where we see that the family is as close as they were before, and are all happily working at the temple still, where Mei’s Red Panda has actually become one of the main attractions. And, she’s making time for both her family and her friends, ending the movie by running off to hang out with her group in the Toronto sunset.

Personally, I went in expecting a fun movie and was very hit in the feels at the end. But I loved it. Even though we’re adults on one side, and babies on the other, I think a lot of us remember, and can super relate to the terrible surprises of puberty. Sometimes I think it’s the most defining part of my life, and I don’t know why that is. It made me think of a quote from “Her Body and Other Parties” a book by Carmen Maria Machado.

’Eleven is a terrifying age,’ she says. ‘I remember nothing before I was eleven. But then there it was, all color and horror.’

While Mei is 13, for me it was about 11, when my world started to change. The acne, the heightened emotions, and the hair in new places. In middle school, I shot up about 5 inches, got braces, and my face got very oily. It can absolutely feel like it’s all happened overnight, and you’re suddenly very different from the kid you were before. My family started looking at me like an alien, and I felt like one.

The horrors and intensity of puberty can affect us for the rest of our lives. I still cringe when I open my middle school yearbooks and find hearts around every picture of every boy I was in “love” with that year. And in the safety of my own yearbook, I was not conservative about the number of boys who received hearts. I spent a lot of my time alone in my room, with my embarrassment, because I felt like I was increasingly not able to relate to my parents, who would try to help, but a lot of times would end up making things feel worse somehow.

Turning Red gets into the issue of family in very important ways as well, diving straight into the importance of cultural tradition in family, and how those traditions can be misconstrued to represent something bad in a new place. The Red Panda was a source of protection to Mei’s ancestors, but once they moved West, it was seen as a curse. I think that distinction, and the acceptance of their Red Pandas at the end of the movie, is a way to say that legend and storytelling are powerful tools that we need to keep in our families and hearts.

Left-to-Right: Red panda Mei, Miriam, Abby, and Priya enjoying cake on-top a roof viewing the Toronto skyline.
Mei and her friends enjoying the Toronto skyline at night.

Not to mention the shift in Mei’s relationship with her parents, being almost inseparable at the beginning of the movie, to being very secretive with them to hide her plans with her friends. At any age, but especially in the tender middle school age, being with family and being with friends can be entirely different worlds, which we witness in full force when Mei’s Aunties and Grandma come to visit.

But it can also just feel especially hard to connect with your parents about anything during this time. Many people have speculated about if the Red Panda legend relates to getting your period, or just puberty in general. But I think the Red Panda is more specifically about how reckless being a teenager can feel and the wave of anger puberty can bring. I think one of the sadder moments of the movie is when Mei’s Grandma mentions that her and Ming’s (Mei’s Mother) relationship was much stronger before Ming’s Red Panda came out, and nothing had been the same since.

A poster designed to look like a pin board with al of Mei's favorite things.
Official movie poster for Turning Red

However, knowing this also makes it feel more beautiful when Ming is able to accept Mei for wanting to pursue her Red Panda, not lock it away. Choosing a life that isn’t like your parents can be very difficult, but never impossible. And change doesn’t have to be scary, especially when you have loved ones there to support you.

While there are a lot of heavy themes in Turning Red, ultimately, it’s about love. The love of family, the love of friends, and the love of yourself. And at the end of the day, it’s still a kid's movie! So in the spirit of kid's movies (and even though we're all adults now)- don’t grow up too fast. Remember to let yourself enjoy the fun parts of life, like Tamagotchi, boy bands, and really great friends.