The relatability of Turning Red: looking beneath the surface

This is a scene from Disney/Pixar’s “Turning Red.”

By Lindsay Steele
The Catholic Messenger

It isn’t often that movie critiques get critiqued. Yet, that’s exactly what’s happened with Disney/Pixar’s newest film, “Turning Red.”

The film focuses on teenager Meilin “Mei” Lee as she navigates the perils of puberty and a newfound ability to turn into a giant red panda. Like dir­ector Domee Shi — the first woman to solo direct a Pixar film — Mei is Chinese-Canadian. Mei’s Eastern spirituality is featured heavily in the film, and the main cast is female.

In a widely panned CinemaBlend article, movie reviewer Sean O’Connell called the film “limiting in its scope.”


“By rooting ‘Turning Red’ very specifically in the Asian community of Toronto, the film legitimately feels like it was made for Domee Shi’s friends and immediate family members,” O’Connell wrote. Chicago Sun-Times reviewer Richard Roeper opined that younger children would not understand the film because it focuses on the experiences of middle school girls.

In my opinion, they miss the big picture. The best writers and directors create characters that viewers can relate to, regardless of skin color, gender and setting. Take Disney’s hugely successful film, “Encanto,” for example. Most of the viewers are not Colombian, and I’d guess that none of them ever lived in a magical house. Still, the movie found success because of its relatable characters and the fact that most people experience family drama of some kind. Viewers could see themselves in at least one member of the Madrigal family — the outcast, the strong one, the face of the family, the overprotective one, the performer, the peacemaker, etc.

If relatability hedged on external factors, franchises like “Star Wars,” “Toy Story,” “Cars” or any princess movie would have to be considered limiting as well.

So, perhaps viewers of “Turning Red” are, largely, something other than teenage girls of Asian descent who practice humanistic Buddhism and turn into animals when they become emotional. I relate to some aspects of the movie even though I don’t share Mei’s heritage or spirituality. I remember the embarrassment of having a first crush, listening to boy band music (Hanson, anyone?) and the pressure to perform academically. I strongly related to the scene where Mei gives a well-researched presentation in an attempt to convince her mother to let her go to a concert. For me, it was trying to convince my mother to let me wear makeup, and just like Mei’s mother, mine said no.

My 5-year-old son couldn’t relate to Mei’s puberty problems, but he loved her “cool” panda persona. “Turning Red” has become one of his favorite movies.

The ability to relate to someone who is different is not difficult — it just takes looking beneath the surface to find common ground. Otherwise, we limit ourselves.

(Editor’s note: Lindsay Steele is a reporter for The Catholic Messenger. Contact her at or by phone at (563) 888-4248.)

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