Unlike some of the one-dimensional female friendship and coming of age films of the past, Disney•Pixar’s Turning Red takes an honest look at the connections we have with our friends. What’s more, the film does it through the lens of a Chinese Canadian 13-year-old.
And because it’s Pixar, it throws in a bit of fun — and some mysticism too — by having its lead character, Meilin Lee (Roselie Chiang) turn into a giant red panda whenever she gets too excited or stressed. As you can imagine, containing such a beast is no easy task, just as you are about to experience the most significant change of your life. But it helps to have friends and a fiercely protective mother like Ming Lee (Sandra Oh) by your side.
Directed by Academy Award-winner Domee Shi, Turning Red celebrates our relationships with our friends and parents honestly and without any filter. So while the film tells us that growing up is messy, we also learn that everything will be okay. And that maybe, unleashing the beast can help us understand life and ourselves a little bit better.
And The Nerds of Color had a chance to participate in the virtual press conference for Turning Red to talk to the cast and crew about subverting the toxic tropes of on-screen female friendships.
At times, Chiang found herself pointing at the resemblance between her own life and her character’s life. “Yeah, for me. Well, after watching the movie, my mom and I looked at each other like, ‘this is really similar,” she said. “There’s so many odds and really weird coincidence. First of all, my mom’s middle name is Ming. There’s no way they could have known that.”
“My favorite animals were actually red pandas before the whole project even started before I was even introduced,” Chiang continued. “But the main thing is that my mom actually calls me Mei Mei before this project because Mei Mei means little sister in Chinese. And so when it came to a point where everyone called Mei Mei, even the people who were younger than me, which you’re not supposed to do. So, when she goes, ‘I’m perfect little Mei Mei.’ I’m like, ‘Hey that I literally went through that.'”
Though it’s unclear who decided that the female friendships in coming-of-age films are portrayed as catty or backstabby, recent films like Turning Red represent a positive change for the genre. “Having young women and young girls in my life watching television and films with them over the years, you just realize it. I don’t know who sets this up that girls are like this because I don’t think it’s very true,” Oh said. “I think this is an extremely good representation of deep friendships and the highs and the lows.”
“I think with like TV and film, we always portrayed that. Like your love interest is the one that you should be closer with, you know, like, that’s like the real bond,” Ramakrishnan added. “That always made me sort of skeptical because wouldn’t childhood best friend know you better? Don’t they know what your favorite ice cream flavor is? Don’t they know what to do when you’re having a breakdown? So yeah, that’s important. And, you know, growing up, if you don’t have that, you can then get all the lovely internalized misogyny where you’re like, ‘oh, yeah, I only like hanging out with guys. Because girls are like, so dramatic.’ No, no, that’s not that.”
“So it’s so awesome that we have this because now my little cousin gets to see this is the kind of girl gang you want, where it’s just chill, you get to be your goofy self, that’s able to just be who you are,” Ramakrishnan said. “But you also need to have those crying moments where it’s like, hey, I really need support. I need someone who just understands me without having to explain myself and explain who I am and get that weird validation. You’re already feeling valid.”
“Pixar has a very wide younger audience. And I feel like people like I grew up watching a bunch of Pixar movies, and now this is for like a new generation of people who can, there they can kind of first see what a good solid female friendship is like, and being able to be a part of that, I am honored. Like, that is such a cool thing to be able to say,” Ava Morse, who voices Miriam, said.
For Hyein Park, who voices the fierce Abby, the way Turning Red connected with her is aspects of friends being goofy and honest with yourself. “Those are the moments where I feel throughout my very ripe age whenever I had the hardest time. Those are the things that push me through and help me through. I have those friends where I can just be myself, cry, or be super-goofy and be crazy,” she said. Those are the parts that I related t the most.”
And it’s Turning Red‘s honesty in those cringe-worthy moments about all of the changes we go through in adolescence that makes it wholly authentic. “I’m currently a high school student, and everybody is just growing and changing together. It can be very stressful and even dark at times, ’cause everyone is going through a lot, and not everyone knows how to handle that,” Morse said. “But at the same time, it’s kind of a beautiful thing. Everybody’s in that together and putting their all into living their lives the best they can. I was really inspired by my own friends, putting them into Miriam herself; she is such a supportive and amazing friend to Mei and the other girls. My friends are so supportive and always there for me, no matter what, so I thought it was really cool to kind of ‘give back’ in that way.”
And Turning Red is much a celebration of those female friendships as it is honoring their intelligence and ability to hustle a giant red panda for profit to see their favorite boy band, 4Town. “They’re not afraid to be smart. They’re not afraid to like their work. They’re extremely entrepreneurial in this. They have their eyes on the prize, which is they want to go to 4Town, and they make it happen,” Oh said. “Also with a panda, but they make it happen. And I just really also appreciated how it’s like all these girls, even in their young, young womanhood, are in charge of their lives, and they’re making their decisions. And they have a good time doing it.”
So when it comes to the on-screen friendships that served as inspiration, Chiang mentioned, That’s So Raven. “They truly value their friendship. And they, like, never let go of that throughout the entire show,” Chiang said. “It’s something that I resonated with because I have had many friends come and go throughout my life. But the friends — my squad right now, I’ve known them my entire life.”
For Ramakrishnan, it’s Sailor Moon. “Like, they got each other’s back, then they fight crime. And have powers. That was cool. I like that,” she said.
Within that sisterhood, we find that Meilin and her friends’ love for 4Town is the glue that keeps the friendship together. Of course, there’s nothing quite like experiencing a concert on your own with just your friends. And Ramakrishnan knows that full well. “I remember — and this is gonna be very Canadian of me — going into grade nine, going into high school, and that summer before when I went to my first concert,” she admits. “I went to see [Canadian pop group] Marianas Trench, and I lost my mind! I was always wondering, ‘Why do people cry at a concert? Shouldn’t you be excited to be there?’ You would be smiling, maybe laughing, who knows. But then, as soon as they came out on stage, I was bawling, and I thought, ‘I understand now. I understand why I was so emotional.’ I didn’t know exactly why, but it just made sense. The importance of music, growing up — it totally shapes who you are.”
But female friendships aren’t the only thing explored in Turning Red. Because the film also examines the relationship between a mother and daughter through the lens of Chinese-Canadians. As such, the film subverts the very idea of a tiger mom. However, it’s a concept that Oh is not afraid of. “I happen to have a really good relationship with my mom. And I know not everyone does. But I do in the way of like, I can’t stop her from being herself. And I’m not going to stop, and I’m going to enjoy something I do, which is going to show what she wants me to do because that’s just not me,” she said. “But there within that, there is that pull that we are always having, I think with our mothers, and with our Asian mothers that it’s very, very difficult to satisfy them.”
Ultimately, Turning Red is Meilin’s journey of self discovery and a better understanding of the relationships she shares with her friends and family. When what her and audiences take away should be, Chiang said “I’d say her drive. I feel like she has such a drive to when she sets her mind on something she goes for. She doesn’t go like she doesn’t half-assed, like she, she puts all her time and energy to make sure she gets her point across or whatever and bull she has. Also the fact that she goes through change something that everyone goes through in their lives, especially puberty. It’s such a messy and weird and awkward time that I literally went through when I was during the duration of recording for Pixar. And I think I hope people admire what she goes through and how she deals with it.”
Turning Red launches exclusively on Disney+ on March 11, 2022.