PIXAR’s “Turning Red” echoes theme in Disney’s “Encanto” (and “Soul”, “Brave”, & “Tangled”)

disney and pixar moms mei turning red
Credit: Disney/PIXAR

While many are still reeling from the awkwardness, second-hand embarrassment, and nods to puberty, menstruation, and gyrations to which they were subjected this weekend thanks to PIXAR’s latest release, I’m entirely fixated on another theme that permeates every scene of the film.

Turning Red

Credit: Disney

PIXAR’s Turning Red finally made its debut on the Disney+ streaming platform on Friday, despite the director’s hopes for a theatrical debut, and while I had wondered whether Disney made the right decision when it came to the film’s debut type, I’m now almost certain now that the streaming debut was the only choice for this film.

Turning Red is the story of 13-year-old Mei Lee, a Chinese Canadian who lives with her family in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. She lives with her parents, Jin and Ming Lee, and she works with her mother as the family hosts visitors at a Chinese temple in the city and gives tours to guests on the temple grounds. The beginning of the film sees 13-year-old Mei as a confident young girl, secure in her friendships, secure in her grades, secure in dance moves, and secure in her infatuation with the five male members of a boy band called 4*Town. (Why is it called “4*Town” when there are 5 boys in the band?)

turning red

Credit: PIXAR Animation Studios

But at the onset of her adolescence, Mei begins to feel awkward, afraid, and even alone. She’s horrified to discover that with any elevated emotion, she morphs into a giant red panda and causes damage to everything around her–sometimes unintentionally, sometimes intentionally. Clearly, Mei bursting into her red panda form is a metaphor for the wild swing of emotions experienced by many adolescents and teens on their journeys toward adulthood, thanks to changes in hormone levels in their developing bodies.

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Credit: PIXAR Animation Studios

There’s no shortage of tween, teen, and middle school-age appropriate humor and name-calling, but despite what other reviews of PIXAR’s 25th animated feature film might tell you, Turning Red is less about the physical changes taking place in the female adolescent body and far more about the tragedy that is intergenerational trauma.

Both Disney’s Encanto and PIXAR’s Turning Red highlight strong female characters, such as Luisa Madrigal who is physically strong, Isabela Madrigal who exudes confidence, Mirabel Madrigal who has the strength to keep going despite constant challenges, and now Mei Lee, who finds the strength to tame the panda within her when she must. But other seemingly “strong” female characters within the films project a “strength” that isn’t true strength at all, but rather a mirage–a sense of loss, of fear, of failure, of not meeting others’ expectations–that masquerades as confidence and dominance, rendering them incapable of truly listening to, validating, learning about, and enjoying those around them.

mei turning red pixar

Credit: PIXAR Animation Studios

In Encanto, Abuela is the matriarch of the family. She was widowed when her children were only babies, and she has reared them on her own. She has specific expectations for herself and for every member of her large family, each of whom lives under the same roof as her.

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Credit: Disney Animation Studios

Abuela is strict, she is demanding, and she is intolerant of anyone, including members of her own family such as Mirabel, who don’t measure up to her vision of perfection, who don’t “make her family proud,” and who don’t follow the status quo that keeps her most comfortable. And let’s not even talk about what she feels for those who venture out into the uncertain waters of independent thought.

We see similar characteristics in other female characters in Disney and PIXAR films. They are often the products of trauma and the purveyors of trauma, passing it along to subsequent generations because of their inability or refusal to deal with their own pain and those who caused that pain for them.

Queen Elinor Concept (#23) - Hero Concepts - Disney Heroes: Battle Mode

Credit: PIXAR Animation Studios

In PIXAR’s Brave, Merida’s mother, Queen Elinor, demands that her daughter conduct herself in exactly the way she instructs her. Rather than celebrating her daughter’s independence and creativity in pursuing her true self, the Queen nearly sacrifices her relationship with her daughter for the image she wants Merida to project. Queen Elinor’s demands surely arise from her royal lineage and the centuries-old layout for how royals are to behave.

In Disney’s Tangled, it’s Mother Gothel who belts out the twisted ballad, “Mother Knows Best,” the very lyrics of which label Rapunzel too naive, sloppy, immature, clumsy, ditzy, and grubby, implore the gold-headed princess not to “be a dummy,” and feature questions meant to degrade Rapunzel’s self-image like, “Why would he like you?” Though Mother Gothel is a kidnapper, a villain, and not even Rapunzel’s true mother, she still plays the role of a mother for whom intergenerational trauma has directed her path.

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In PIXAR’s Soul, it’s Joe Gardner’s mother, Libba, who almost ritualistically makes it her mission to bring about feelings of shame and failure in Joe when he rhapsodizes over being a jazz musician; nevermind the fact that it has always been Joe’s dream to do so. Her behaviors stem from fears about Joe experiencing hardships as his father did and ultimately from her determination to control outcomes.

Pixar's Soul Characters Sorting Quiz

Credit: PIXAR Animation Studios

In Turning Red, it’s Mei’s mother Ling who is both the product and purveyor of intergenerational trauma, as seen by her uber-strict parenting of Mei–even to the point of leaving out Mei’s father’s opinions and advice about how to respond to their daughter–as well as her lack of respect for Mei’s feelings and for school rules about unauthorized visitors on school grounds, as seen when Ling shows up at Mei’s school and watches the classroom through the window, refuses to leave when asked to, and kicks the school security guard in response to his demands.

pixar turning red ling lee mom

Credit: PIXAR Animation Studios

Mei’s mother has unachievable expectations for her, including the expectation for her to reject any normal feeling or emotion that comes from being a typically-developing adolescent and processing through the ebb and flow of hormones on the path toward adulthood. This harmful methodology leaves Mei feeling that she’s not good enough for her mother, that she’s lacking, and that she is a failure. We discover later in the film that Mei’s grandmother passed along much of this harmful methodology to her mother, leaving her with feelings of insignificance and failure as well.

Disney's 'Turning Red' reflected the women in my family

Credit: PIXAR Animation Studios

Intergenerational trauma isĀ defined as trauma that gets passed down from those who directly experience an incident to subsequent generations,Ā according to GoodTherapy.org. In each of these films, it’s clear that past experiences, past hurts, unattainable expectations inappropriately placed, and the like have rendered these females seemingly helpless. All they know to do is to keep the cycle going because they don’t have the experience otherwise.

It’s because of this that the audience is able to transition from feelings of resentment toward characters like Abuela in Disney’s Encanto and Mei’s mother Ling in PIXAR’s Turning RedĀ to feelings of compassion for the seemingly-traumatized mothers.

The only instance in which this isn’t the case is, of course, with Mother Gothel.

On a lighter note, Turning Red is a pleasant, though occasionally awkward film that creates bubbles of laughter in teens–especially older ones who often think they’ve matured far beyond any such behaviors, as well as hints of muffled laughter among parents who’ve been through some of this with their older teens already.

Turning Red': Director Tells Us What Pixar's Next Movie Is About

Credit: PIXAR Animation Studios

If you’re the parent of an incredibly astute and attentive elementary-aged child with whom topics of mental, emotional, and physical adolescent development have yet to be discussed, proceed cautiously as this film could easily serve as the gateway to all of those fun little questions and discussions!

About Becky Burkett

Becky's from the Lone Star State and has been writing since she was 10 and encountered her first Disney Park when she was 11. It was love at first Main Street Electrical Parade. Joy is blank lined journals, 0.7 mm pens, and all things Walt, Woody and Buzz, PIXAR, Imagineering, Sleeping Beauty (make it blue!), Disney Parks history and EPCOT. At Disney World, you'll find her croonin' with the birdies at the Enchanted Tiki Room or hangin' with Woody and the gang at Toy Story Land. If you can dream, you really can do it!