Sunday, January 29, 2023

Helicopter Parent Panda

Film: Turning Red
Format: Streaming video from Disney Plus on Fire!

I knew when it was released that Turning Red was going to be nominated for Best Animated Feature. I had all sorts of good intentions about watching it before the Oscar nominations were announced, but I found it more and more difficult to watch movies toward the end of last year. So, here we are and I’ve finally gotten around to watching it. All I knew going in was that it was controversial, mainly because it dealt with (gasp) a bodily function that women go through. The horrors of kids finding out about the menstrual cycle.

And, honestly, that ends up being one of the most meta moments of Turning Red. A substantial plot point in the film is that our main character Meilin (voiced by Rosalie Chiang) deals with a terribly overbearing mother, Ming (Sandra Oh). A large part of the plot happens specifically because Ming is a helicopter mom, desperate to keep Meilin from anything that might possibly hurt her…and the main objection to the film by the conservative wing of Americans is that it includes a topic that they don’t want their kids to know about.

To be blunt, this is actually kind of surprising because Meilin, Ming, and Ming’s husband/Mei’s father Jin (Orion Lee) are very clearly not Christians—the family runs a temple in Toronto dedicated to Sun Yee, an ancestor of the Ming’s. What we discover soon enough is that there is a sort of family curse. Much like Michael J. Fox in Teen Wolf, Mei has inherited the ancestral ability to become a giant red panda. This happens when she becomes excited for any reason. We learn this when her mother embarrasses her in front of the boy that Mei has a crush on.

The controversy happens when Ming, not allowing her daughter to speak, decides that what is going on in Mei’s life is that she has had her first period. There are some hijinks regarding this until it becomes evident that Mei has fully inherited the red panda curse. The curse, we learn, can be broken in a ceremony that can happen during a lunar eclipse, which will happen later in the month. At that time, the panda spirit can be sealed in a talisman.

Simultaneously, we learn that the current boy band, called 4 Town, is touring and will be coming to Toronto. Mei, like many a 13-year-old girl, is a fan, as are her three friends, Miriam (Ava Morse), Priya (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan), and Abby (Hyein Park). But tickets are $200 each, and none of them get permission from their parents. Mei’s ability to turn into a giant panda also slips out, and suddenly everyone at the school loves the panda. The girls concoct a plan to monetize the panda to make the money to go to the concert. But, because Abby can’t read the schedule correctly, they discover that the concert is on the same night as the ceremony.

There’s a great deal that Turning Red does correctly. The kids, primarily, are great. I like all four of the girls, but it’s Abby who I want to have her own movie. Abby is a feral child, the kind who will chew through a chain link fence for a friend, or if there’s something she wants on the other side. I also appreciate that this is a clear depiction of an overbearing parent. Yes, it’s extreme, and Ming is probably not someone who would exist that often in the real world, but movie tend to ramp up such characters to make them distinct.

In that respect, you have to think that perhaps Turning Red is as much a movie for the parents as it is for the kids. Ming is so fully in helicopter mode that any parent of a teen watching this will immediately compare themselves to her. How much of protecting our kids is too much? Where is the balance between letting them grow up and protecting them from being hurt? Kids want more autonomy than they should have and parents tend to give them less than they need.

And this is the heart of Turning Red. Everything else—the songs from 4 Town, the arrival of Ming’s mother and aunts, and even the conclusion and the ceremony are all window dressing. These are the plot, but not the important part of the story. It really is all about the relationship between Meilin and Ming, and this is the reason to watch.

Everything else is as you expect. This is Pixar, after all. You know the art and animation are going to be as good as you’ll find. The production quality is what you think you’re going to get from Pixar, so there are no disappointments there.

And if you’re the sort of parent who would prevent your kid from watching this because, a) the main character is Chinese and a girl; b) at least two of her friends are not white; c) the Lee family are clearly not Christians (or even Americans!); and/or d) there is clear mention of Mei experiencing the possibility of her period, please do the rest of the world a favor and stop acting like Mei’s mother.

Why to watch Turning Red: Watch it for Abby if for no other reason.
Why not to watch: This is helicopter parenting on steroids.


  1. I have this on my Disney+ watchlist as I hope to watch that after I watch Fire of Love next month.

    1. It's good, but you've seen a lot of this when it was called Teen Wolf.

  2. I really enjoyed Turning Red and loved the emphasis (as always) on non-white, non-Christian characters. The world is a big place and we're all better off seeing more of its peoples.

    Abby is great. I kept thinking that she looked like another character until it finally dawned on me. She's basically a Lego person.

    1. She's also very close to a South Park Canadian.

      I would absolutely watch an Abby movie.