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In recent years, Disney has increased the diversity of its animated movies. With the success of Encanto, Coco and Raya and the Last Dragon, it is no surprise that its latest movie would come with a lot of hype.
A coming of age story, Turning Red was released on Disney Plus on Mar 13. As someone who adored Disney movies growing up, I had to see it! When I saw the trailer, I could already tell that the film would concentrate on Asian culture and its impact on an Asian daughter, specifically a Chinese girl. It reminded me of Disney’s other Asian heroine, Mulan.
The film revolves around a 13-year-old confident and dorky teen called Mei Lee (Rosalie Chiang) as she tries to be the dutiful daughter her mother (Sandra Oh) expects her to be while growing up as a teenager. If that isn’t bad enough, she transforms into a massive red panda whenever her emotions become too intense.
It hits home for me, being an Asian daughter who is still trying to find my place in the world like Mei Lee. With a racially diverse cast, this film shares many important lessons and values such as the value of family, friends, and embracing your culture.
And Mei Lee’s fluffy red panda persona is a big bonus!
Set to be a comedic, family fantasy film with some stellar animated scenes, the movie left me with a warm fuzzy feeling when it ended. Here are some things that I learned from watching this family film you should catch with your loved ones.
Warning, spoilers ahead!
1. Choosing the right group of friends
Mei Li has three close friends that she hangs out with. Priya (played by Maitreyi Ramakrishnan), Miriam (Ava Morse) and Abby (Hyein Park). It was fresh to see a racially diverse cast in a Disney movie.
Aside from a Sikh security guard, I also noticed a girl in a hijab in Mei Lee’s school. Even though she was just a background character who had no lines, it excited me, being a Muslim myself.
The film taught me to choose my friends wisely, a lesson that all teenagers and youths should learn!
When Mei Lee’s three friends find out that she can turn into a giant red panda, they tell her that they would accept her no matter what. She realises later that her friends are the source of her calm that helps her transform back into human form.
Like most of us, Mei Lee just needs to feel loved and accepted.
“When I start to get emotional, I just imagine all the people I love,” Mei Lee says.
What bonds the friend group even more is their love for 4-Town, a boy band that is performing in a concert that they all want to attend. Disney fans would recognise Jordan Fisher, who plays the lead singer of the group.
This is the girls’ goal in the film, to raise enough money to go to the concert. There is a scene where they all agree that if one of them couldn’t go to the concert, none of them would.
It was touching to see how even at a young age, they automatically would sacrifice their tickets for the sake of their friendship. This is the kind of friends that I need.
2. Family will always be there for you
Mei Lee’s mother Ming is a huge part of her story. Her character is an overbearing mother who “watches Mei Lee like a hawk”. We soon find out that the reason for her overprotectiveness is her fear of Mei Lee’s “curse” appearing.
It was heartwarming to see how after Mei Lee’s parents find out about her curse, they do everything in their power to help her banish her inner beast.
A scene that hit home for me is when her grandmother, Wu, and her aunties come to help Mei Lee with her curse. The relationship between Ming and Wu is another important part of the story.
Despite being overbearing and stressful, at a critical point in the movie, Wu and the aunties risk everything to help save the family. Not going to lie, that scene got me quite emotional.
It taught me that no matter what you go through, your family will always be there for you.
3. Embracing your culture
Mei Lee soon learns that she should embrace her curse and turn it into a blessing.
After her mother tells her that she is not allowed to go to the concert, Mei Lee learns that she can raise the money for herself and her friends using her adorable red panda persona.
Through this process, she realises how she likes being a panda as it allows her to be herself.
The decision to keep the inner panda in spite of her mother’s disapproval was something that I admired her for.
It was her first decision that she made by herself, for herself and not to please her mother. It is an important first step towards growing up.
4. Asian stereotype of a dutiful daughter
Mei Lee helps her mother at the family temple. Every day after school, she would promptly go home to perform her cleaning duties.
At the start of the film, Mei Lee explains how she has to do what her parents expect of her (especially her mother!) as they have sacrificed a lot for her to live a good life.
As someone who lives in an Asian household, I can relate.
I often hear how my parents sacrificed so much for me to live a good life so I have to repay them somehow. It is a mindset imposed on us since young, that we have to be dutiful daughters and sons to our elders.
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For example, like Mei Lee, getting good grades for a good future is something that my mother expects of me.
As students in the stressful Singapore education system, we all might have felt burdened by this at one point in our lives. In the movie, Mei Lee finds comfort below her bed where she hides everything that seems unworthy to her mother.
Later, we find out how this burden of expectation has been passed over generations — through the estranged relationship between a younger Ming and Wu, and how Ming too, suffers the same fear of not being able to be good enough for her mother.
There is a line that Ming says that struck me: “I’m just so sick of being perfect and I’m never going to be good enough for her.”
The raw emotion in that simple line moved me to tears, because that’s how I feel sometimes.
5. Teenagers and their emotions
As the film revolves around a teenager, we get to experience what Mei Lee feels and how she acts around her peers. We are reminded how a teenage girl feels when she sees a boy that she likes!
I remember being 13. Entering a new school and still finding yourself, it was an adventure.
The film highlights how Mei Lee wants her mother to know that she is growing up and how she wants the freedom to make her own choices when it comes to relationships, life and her friends.
It also portrays quite accurately the dilemma that teens go through, not having a say in their decisions and thus resorting to doing stuff behind their parents’ backs, like sneaking out of the house or going to concerts.
In the movie, it all ends happily when Ming realises how Mei Lee is growing up and is not her little “Mei Mei” any more.
She accepts Mei Lee’s friends and sees her daughter as someone who was capable of making her own decisions and the relationship between mother and daughter becomes stronger, albeit a little different.
In real life, things are seldom so easily resolved. Still, I take comfort in the fact that with the right approach and open communication, things can work out between people who care for each other.
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Overall, I enjoyed Turning Red. It has the perfect combination of comedy and heartwarming scenes that is sure to keep audiences engaged.
It is a bonus that the film revolves around Asian culture (albeit in Toronto, Canada) for a change.
It was also refreshing to see a main character in an animated Disney movie that is not portrayed as someone who is perfect all the time. It made it all the more realistic for me.
As Mei Lee says: “We’ve all got an inner beast. We’ve all got a messy, loud weird part of ourselves hidden away. And a lot of us never let it out. But I did. How about you?”