Growing Up with Disney and ‘Turning Red’

"Turning Red" official poster, released Feb 21, 2022. Photo by Walt Disney Pictures and Pixar Animation Studios.

By Julia Corrie

Disney and Pixar Animation Studios have released their first full-length film of 2022, Turning Red. The story follows 13-year-old girl Meilin, who struggles to balance being the perfect daughter and navigate 8th grade. 

Domee Shi is the first solo female director in Pixar’s history, making her feature-length directorial debut in Turning Red. This film follows Shi’s Academy Award win in 2018 for best animated short film, Bao. The short film also had strong Asian cultural ties, while focusing on the importance of family and the impact they can have on a child’s life.

Prior to Turning Red, Moana and Raya and the Last Dragon were some of the only sources of Disney media that highlighted Asian culture, and they are both stories of fantasy. Mulan was the only semi-realistic story to be told, but even then, the 2020 remake was greatly criticized by Chinese critics around the world. 

In Turning Red, Meilin’s overwhelmed emotions about growing up made her turn into a giant red panda. The main goal was to get her to center her mind, and not let these emotions affect her too entirely. However, being in middle school and hitting puberty is traumatic, and children are expected to live through it unscathed. 

The time between age 11 and 13 is imperative for a child’s development, it serves as the middle ground between elementary school and high school. That gap between schools is so vast — in age, time and maturity. The concept of emotional maturity is foreign, and children are thrown into the deep end by the education system with hopes they can swim.

There’s no set of rules or enough support books in the world to help children understand this transition because it’s incredibly difficult. Children come up with constant questions no matter their age, but the number triples once they reach the age of 11. Their bodies are changing, mentalities are shifting from an elementary schooler’s to a teenager’s, it’s like a purgatory that everyone has to live through. 

Turning Red highlights something not displayed as much in Disney media: being unapologetically you. Meilin’s friends (Miriam, Priya, and Abby) are all confident in themselves when they’re together — I wish it had reminded me of how I was in middle school. 

There is an idea that when in middle school, everything is the most important thing in the world. This includes acting like a grown-up. Being mature in attitude, bodies changing at a more rapid speed than others, will make anyone who falls behind feel like they just walked into 2nd grade instead of 6th.

Obsessed with boy bands, excited to break free from the parent’s rules, writing fictional stories about celebrities they love, the characters in this film made audience members like myself feel nostalgic. There are not many middle school-age children represented in Disney films, so it was refreshing to see an incredibly realistic portrayal of middle school girls.

The students in this film are trying their best to get through a time in their life that could very easily be miserable, if put in inauthentic circumstances. Middle school is hard enough, and trying to be something you’re not makes it even harder.

In many Disney films, when children are younger, it only serves as a chronological plot point to move the story along. Examples of this include Frozen, Tangled and The Princess and the Frog. The main plot in those stories takes place when the characters are older and in turn they serve as role models for young children watching. 

However, in Turning Red, children of middle school ages will be able to look at the characters and see themselves. Non-American children can often be held to a higher standard by their parents, whether they’re first-generation students or continuing on a legacy put forward by older siblings. 

The issue of trust was seen throughout the film, as Meilin was confused as to why her parents wouldn’t let her go to a concert when she had always been the perfect child and student. I believe that this story also taught parents more about trust, especially because this is a time when children tend to turn away from their parents in order to find out who they are. 

Trusting a child to make their own decisions based on what their parents have taught them was a major conclusion in this film for me. Turning Red is fun for the entire family, and the story should be considered timeless for generations to come. 

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