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4 Things Parents Should Know about Turning Red

  • Michael Foust Crosswalk Headlines Contributor
  • Updated Mar 23, 2022
4 Things Parents Should Know about <em>Turning Red</em>

Meilin is a 13-year-old girl who struggles with everything a typical teen faces – insecurity, awkwardness and a tendency to be easily embarrassed.

Like others her age, she often thinks she’s the smartest person in the world. And like others her age, she often hides in her room – in her case, under her bed – and daydreams about members of the opposite sex.

No doubt, Meilin is going through some tough times. 

But things are about to get much worse. That’s because Meilin, one morning, wakes up as a giant red panda.

She eventually turns back into her human self but then turns back into a giant red panda at school – only to turn back into her normal self after she locks herself in a bathroom stall.

What in the world is going on?

It seems that Meilin’s red panda transformation occurs only when she grows anxious, angry or sad.

The question is: Will she ever learn to control her emotions?

The new Pixar Disney Plus film Turning Red (PG) tells the unique story of Meilin, who lives with a loving but overbearing mom and a dad who isn’t sure how to handle his fast-changing teen daughter.

Here are four things parents should know about Turning Red:

1. It’s all about Female Puberty

Social media was replete with messages on the film’s opening day from moms and dads who watched several minutes of Turning Red … only to turn it off after learning more about the plot (which, by the way, wasn’t clear from the trailer). The movie’s central focus is female puberty, or, more specifically, a girl’s first menstrual cycle. By itself, that’s a solid idea for an animated film – but it might not be a plot Mom and Dad want to discuss with their 5-year-old son on a Friday night.

“Did the red peony bloom?” Meilin’s mom asks her early in the film while standing outside the bathroom door. “... You must protect your delicate petals and clean them regularly.”

Mom offers her herbal tea for cramps and pads for her period. Her mom even comes to school and stands outside a classroom window to check on her – and to offer her more pads in case she needs them. (I told you she was overbearing, right?)

Much of the discussion about periods is implied, not said. Still, discerning children likely will have pointed questions when the credits roll.

2. It Has Double Meaning

The backdrop to the plot is Meilin’s Asian family and their service as “keepers” of an ancestral temple in the city of Toronto. As Meilin tells us, “instead of honoring a god, we honor our ancestors.” One of those ancestors was a lover of nature who dedicated her life to the animals of the forest – especially to the red panda. As Meilin eventually learns, this ancestor – a woman – “asked the gods” to turn her into a red panda so she could protect her village from evil invaders. (The men, we are told were “all gone.”) The gods granted her wish, and since then, every female in Meilin’s ancestry – including her mom – has had this red panda power. It can only be “cured” by undergoing a ritual at night under a red moon, during which time the red panda will be “sealed” in a necklace charm.

“I overcame it, and you will too,” her mom says.

The red panda is a magical element in Turning Red, but it’s also symbolic of a menstrual cycle and Meilin’s emotions.

“You’re being weird,” one of her friends tells her at school the same morning she struggled with keeping the red panda inside.

Meilin is transformed into a red panda when her emotions grow out of control. But when she’s hanging out with her supportive friends, she’s able to keep it in check.

3. It Is Unlike any Pixar Movie Yet

To its credit, Pixar has built a reputation for creating movies that tackle difficult subjects. Onward spotlighted the loss of a father. Soul examined life’s purpose while touching on the afterlife. The Toy Story films were all about children growing up and moving away.

Turning Red, too, examines a difficult subject, but it doesn’t stay in the kid-friendly boundaries as those others did. We hear references to her drawings including “sexy things” and a boy at school being a “perv.”

Some of the film’s funniest moments involve Meilin and her friends’ infatuation with a five-member boy band, 4-Town. Unfortunately, those funny moments also are interspersed with problematic scenes and lines.

“[My parents] called it stripper music. What’s wrong with that?” one of Meilin’s friends says.  

Meilan and her friends attend a party where we hear Destiny’s Child’s Bootylicious.

And in the film’s final 20 minutes, we see Meilin – in the form of the red panda – twerking over and over in order to defeat her mom’s out-of-control giant red panda.

“Destroy her with your big butt,” her friend says, cheering Meilin.

If you didn’t get the message already, Meilin is here to help. She tells her mom, “I like boys. I like loud music. I like gyrating. I’m 13. Deal with it!”

4. It Has Some Good Messages … and Horrible Ones, Too

The primary message of Turning Red is a good one for girls: Embrace your body. Don’t be embarrassed by its natural rhythms. Christian parents can take this message to the next level with an even-better lesson: Menstrual cycles are part of God’s marvelous design for the body.

Its messages about friendship (support one another) and chores/responsibilities (Meilan has both) are solid.

Regrettably, though, those good messages can be overshadowed by the film’s more controversial themes, which pit Meilin against her mom.

Meilin and her friends lie and deceive in order to attend a 4-Town concert because their parents disapprove of the group. When Meilin’s mom learns of this, she grows into a skyscraper-height red panda and tears open the roof of the concert arena to find Meilin. (The mom shouts: “I never went to concerts. I put my family first!”)

In the film’s final scene, Meilin is walking out the door sporting a half-human, half-panda look, with a panda tail and panda ears but a human body.

“You’re not going out like that, are you?” her mom says.

“My panda, my choice, Mom,” Meilin retorts – to which her mom changes her approach and approves.

The film’s closing message is thus: Girls can follow the world by dressing how they want, going where they want, and listening to what they want to listen to – and parents really should just get out of the way. Thankfully, the Bible has a better message about parental responsibility and guidance. (And, for the record, the music on the radio is not innocent like that of 4-Town.) 

The film lacks nuance.

Yes, Meilin’s mom needs to loosen up. Yes, she is overbearing. Yes, children need more freedom as they age. Those can be good messages for parents. Mostly, though, the film turns mom into a straw man and then lets Meilin tear her apart.

Turning Red has a great message about puberty and friendship we all can embrace. It’s too bad that Pixar tossed in other messages – lacking the complexity of real life – that families should reject.

Rated PG for thematic material, suggestive content and language. Language details: We hear a literal “OMG” about four times. We also hear “oh my gosh.”

Entertainment rating: 3 out of 5 stars.

Family-friendly rating: 3 out of 5 stars.

Photo courtesy: ©Disney/Pixar, used with permission.

Video courtesy: ©Pixar

Michael Foust has covered the intersection of faith and news for 20 years. His stories have appeared in Baptist Press, Christianity Today, The Christian Post, the Leaf-Chronicle, the Toronto Star and the Knoxville News-Sentinel.