Do You Remember Your “Turning Red” Phase ?

By Latonia Jones


In the Disney Pixar family/comedy film “Turning Red,” newly turned 13-year old Mei Lee, once a dutiful daughter, physically changes into a giant red panda overnight. This particular change happens because of an ancient Chinese family curse. Leading to the climax of the film, Mei finds ways to cope with her family’s curse through the love of her friends. Mei struggles with her emotions throughout the entire film, as well as her family and friends.

I wrote about “Turning Red” because in this course about Spiritually we have discussed a lot of things Mei deals with in the film. In order for the family curse to be contained, a ritual must take place. The Red Moon ritual in the film goes along with the theme of spirituality. The family calls upon ritual leader Mr. Gao to spearhead the ritual. The Red Moon ritual includes the cursed participant sitting in a drawn circle until a realm opens for an exchange, while other participants in the outer circle sing a song from the heart.

In the film, the participants use bells, chime/sound bowls, and other Chinese sound instruments. The Red Moon ritual takes place first in the family’s Chinese temple, and then in the concert arena. For this blog I use the work of the scholar bell hooks’ book All About Love. Much of my discussion is around chapter two, entitled “Justice: Childhood Love Lessons.”


Mei Lee and Her Mom (Ming Lee)

Mei Lee was a dutiful daughter and did as she was told. We see in the beginning of the film that after school she briefly meets with friends, then makes her way home to help her mother. After noticing changed behavior in Mei, her mother kept a watchful eye on her. Mei was rejecting her mother’s overbearing behavior because of the changes Mei was experiencing. During a moment in the film, Mei betrayed her friends in order to win her mother’s approval. Towards the end of the film, Ming turns into a massive red panda, much larger than Mei’s transformation. In the realm for the second time, Mei saw her mother as a teen and saw a vulnerable side of her mother for the first time.

Mei Lee and Her Friends

Mei Lee discovers that, through contemplative/meditation practice, she may transform in and out of her curse as a big red panda. When she thinks about the love she receives from her friends, her features of being a giant disappear. Mei enters a state of meditation in order to calm her feelings. When Mei is the opposite of calm and her anger rages past the collection of calming thoughts, Mei then becomes the big red panda completely. In the film, Mei turns her back on her friends to seek the approval of her mother. Yet in the end, Mei’s friends reunite with Mei to help take part in the ritual to save Mei’s mother.

Mei Lee’s Mother (Ming Lee) and Grandmother (Wu)     

The film is very open to displaying the cycle of how love can repeat itself, especially in child-parent relationships. Grandmother Wu and Mei’s mother had a strained relationship for most of the film because of the effects of both Mei and Ming Lee’s “turning red” phases. It seems as if Mei’s mother was repeating a cycle with Mei as a mother. Grandmother Wu’s parental pressures spill over into how she is with Mei’s turning red phase. At the end of the film, Ming and Wu had a better understanding of one another.

The Film’s Conclusion

This film can help us understand many different relationships including parental, childhood, friendship relationships. This film focuses on the power of choice and the development of learning and forgiveness. bell hooks mentions, “Love is as love does, and it is our responsibility to give children love. When we love our children, we acknowledge by our every action that they are not property, that they have rights that we respect and uphold their rights” (p. 30). At the end of the film, Mei made the ultimate decision to not break the family curse. Mei’s choice to remain with the family curse as a part of her was brave and vulnerable. Turning into a giant red panda brought out a different side of herself that was positive towards her growth and relationships.

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