Last spring, as a fifth grader, I watched the movie Turning Red for the first time. I was excited to see this movie because it was written and directed by Domee Shi. Shi was born in Chongqing, Sichuan and later moved to Newfoundland, then to Toronto in Canada. While researching her life, I learned that she watched many Studio Ghibli and Disney films throughout her childhood, inspiring her to be the storyboard artist for films like Inside Out, The Good Dinosaur, Toy Story 4, and Incredibles 2. In 2018, she wrote and directed her first short film, Bao, and in 2022, when Turning Red was released by Disney/Pixar, she became the first female solo director (Brenda Chapman co-directed Brave) of a Pixar film!
While watching the movie, I felt particularly drawn to Meilin, a thirteen year-old girl living in Toronto whose life in some ways seems reflective of Shi’s complex international heritage. Turning Red depicts Meilin as she grapples with her identity as a straight-A student desperate for her mother’s approval and her rebellious desire not to seal her wild “panda soul” according to tradition. In the film, the panda soul tradition dates back to Meilin’s ancestors who turned into pandas whenever their emotions ran free. Over time, generations learned to suppress their panda souls through participating in a ceremony for sealing their red panda souls into a pendant or another type of jewelry that could keep the soul locked away.
One of my favorite parts of the movie was Meilin’s own ceremony, when the red moon appears to mark this transformational time of her life. First, Mr. Gao, who is a regular guest of these ceremonies, draws a circle into the dust, and then all of the women begin chanting from their hearts. As they chant, Meilin’s body hovers a few feet in the air, and then her soul lifts into a kind of dreamland. From there, she can walk into a mirror that allows her panda soul to separate from her human soul, all while allowing her to return to the real world after the ceremony is over. After that, her soul is supposed to be safe to live in a piece of jade jewelry, but Meilin defies this expectation by deciding not to seal her panda soul into eternity. By refusing not to seal her panda soul, Meilin has the power to unleash her inner panda whenever she isn’t feeling calm, a fact that is made more extreme through anime. The clouds, for example, turn a poofy pastel pink whenever her panda soul is aroused, like when Meilin is angry at her mother or another classmate, and also her eyes mimic oversized anime eyes whenever she sees a boy that she likes. By using anime, the film effectively shows what it is like to be a tween who is not only hyper aware of her surroundings, but who is also warring with her inner demons as she transitions from a child into a teenager searching for social acceptance.
Overall, I think Turning Red should be seen as a major accomplishment for Domee Shi, because it both gives voice to her own experience growing up in Toronto as an awkward tween and represents the universal experience of transitioning out of childhood that I think a lot of teenagers can relate to.