Turning Red: Going Through Puberty as a Red Panda

The Pixar production Turning Red will be released on March 11. This animation feature, set in turn-of-the-millennium Canada, deals with two highly emotional themes: puberty and Red Pandas.

The main character is 13-year-old Mei Lee (voiced by Rosalie Chiang), a schoolgirl who turns into a giant Red Panda when her emotions overwhelm her.

A Red Panda as a metaphor for the upheavals of puberty. Photo: © 2021 Disney/Pixar.

Turning Red is considered the most elaborate Red Panda-related film production to date. Apart from the figure of Master Shifu in Kung Fu Panda, this species has not yet made the leap to the big screen.

But unfortunately, Turning Red won’t change that.

That’s because Disney announced at the beginning of February that it would show Turning Red on its Disney+ streaming service.  This means that there will be no cinema screenings in the countries where the service is available. One of the few exceptions is Disney’s The El Capitan Theatre in Hollywood, which will show Turning Red for a week.

This decision, which was not without internal controversy, was based on the uncertainty caused by the high number of corona infections. But according to the film portal Screenrant, the good streaming figures for Luca – also a Pixar production that was launched directly on Disney+ – may also have contributed to the decision. 

Anime as inspiration

But no matter where the film will ultimately be seen, the direction it takes is eagerly awaited. The first reviews sound promising.

In an interview with TheWrap, director Domee Shi explains that a lot of personal stuff went into the film. This includes the love of anime like Sailor Moon and its “super colorful soft pastels”. The fictional boy band 4*Town is also said to have an important role – probably an indication that Turning Red will play with a certain 2000s nostalgia charm. Incidentally, the boy band’s songs are by the sibling duo Billie Eilish and Finneas.


One particularly intriguing question is how much “real” Red Panda is in the animal Mei transformed into. According to Danielle Feinberg, visual effects supervisor for Turning Red, the behavior of real Red Pandas provided the basis for the development of the character. As an example, she points out that Red Pandas stretch their arms up in the air when in danger to make them appear larger and more threatening. At the same time, artistic license was necessary to make the character believable. Obviously, no one wants to see an animated film where the main character sleeps for hours in a tree.

Break through the wall 

As the first female-led Pixar production, Turning Red could also bring a surge of innovation. For one thing, themes like puberty and female desire – TheWrap even writes of “Pixar’s Horniest Movie Yet” – are unusual material. But even beyond the hormone-laden story, Turning Red ventures into new territory in the Pixar universe. The main character is a daughter of Chinese immigrants, and there is also room for many other people who would otherwise rarely or never appear in such films. In terms of dramaturgy, a lot of things are supposed to be different as well. Turning Red is likely to be the first Pixar film in which the so-called fourth wall is broken. This means that one of the characters speaks directly to the audience. 

Red Pandas on the red carpet

With the release of Turning Red, the public perception of Red Pandas will most likely change dramatically. The marketing machinery is already picking up speed. Among others, there are cooperations with Firefox, the fast food chain Panda Express and Air Canada. The latter even decorates some of its airplanes with Red Pandas. 

Air Canada’s Turning Red themed Airbus A220. Photo: CNW Group/Air Canada

So much attention for this species is a novelty for Red Panda fans. Curse and blessing are close together here. The publicity may help better protect Red Pandas, but it may also fuel the dangerous demand for Red Pandas as pets.

One change can already be expected: Just as pretty much all clownfish are named “Nemo” and many lions “Simba” or “Mufasa”, we will soon have to accept that Red Pandas will be called “Mei” by many zoo visitors.

Turning Red to be released on Disney+ on March 11, 2022