Warning! Spoilers ahead for Turning Red!
Pixar’s Turning Red is about a tween Chinese-Canadian girl who learns she can transform into a giant furry red panda thanks to a centuries-old family gift. The movie comes from writer/director Domee Shi, who based a lot of the story on her own experiences growing up in Toronto. The animated film stars newcomer Rosalie Chiang as Meilin “Mei” Lee and Grey’s Anatomy‘s Sandra Oh as her mother Ming. Mei is a 13-year-old girl who finds out the hard way that all of the women in her family turn into red pandas every time their emotions are heightened. Premiering on Disney+ on March 11, 2022, Turning Red brings an Asian-Canadian perspective to Pixar, grounding itself in the real experiences of young girls in the early 00s, despite its fantastical premise.
Turning Red follows the Pixar trend of telling a personal story that doesn’t feature a traditional villain. Mei has to come to terms with her transformation into a red panda, which happens every time she gets too excited or upset. She and her friends, Priya, Miriam, and Abby, are obsessed with a boyband called 4*Town, who is coming to Toronto during their North American tour. The problem is that none of their parents want them to go. The girls get the idea to use Mei’s panda form to earn money to buy tickets to the concert, against her mother’s wishes.
At its core, Turning Red is a coming-of-age movie about self-acceptance and growing into your own. It’s also loaded with Easter eggs and references to the 2000s, as well as other Pixar movies. Some of the references are obvious, such as 4*Town’s homage to the boyband craze of the 1990s and 2000s. Others might take a more keen eye to spot. Here’s every Easter egg in Turning Red.
‘Bao’ Pixar Short
Domee Shi also directed the Academy Award-winning short Bao, in which a Chinese mother creates a bao dumpling that she raises as her own child after he comes to life. Bao, like Turning Red, also features a loving, yet overprotective mother who is afraid to let go as her child grows up. In the film, Ming is constantly bringing bao to Meilin as a way to show that she loves and cares for her. The word bao can mean both “steamed bun” and “precious treasure” in Chinese, and for both of the mother characters in these movies, their children are their most precious treasure. The bao in the short is revealed to be the mother’s real, human son at the end, his bao form being a metaphor for how precious he is to her. In Turning Red, the bao is also used to show that, while her mother seems strict at times, she loves Mei more than anything.
A113 is a reference to an animation classroom at the California Institute of the Arts where many of the original Pixar animators studied. A113 appears in every Pixar film, usually as a quick Easter egg. Most notably in Turning Red, it appears as a seat number on a ticket for the 4*Town concert. It also appears quickly on the Chalker that Mei’s father Jin uses to draw a circle around Ming at the SkyDome. A113 is not only a commonly Easter egg in Pixar films. Other animators and filmmakers have inserted it into their films and TV shows as an homage to the famous classroom.
The Luxo Ball
The Luxo ball, also called the Pixar ball, is a yellow and blue ball with a red star that first appeared in a short called Luxo, Jr. as a toy for one of the famous Pixar lamps. It has appeared in every Toy Story film and has become a staple Easter egg of Pixar films. In this film, it appears in the pool at Tyler’s birthday party, where Mei has been hired as entertainment.
The Pizza Planet Truck
Pizza Planet is the pizza restaurant where Andy and his family eat in Toy Story, Pixar’s first feature film. Since then, the Pizza Planet truck has appeared in nearly every Pixar film, aside from The Incredibles. In Turning Red, you can spot the truck in Toronto as Mei in panda form runs towards the SkyDome to get to the 4*Town concert.
Other Pixar Shorts References
Purl, the pink ball of yarn from the Purl short, appears on Mei’s desk in her bedroom and can be seen after she gets in trouble for drawing pictures of Devon the Daisy Mart clerk. Also, the bunny from the short Burrow appears as a sticker on the back of Mei’s notebook. Pixar is known for pairing theatrical releases with a short film, usually with a similar theme to the movie itself. Purl and Burrow are both shorts that came out of Pixar’s SparkShorts program. Shi actually provided one of the voices for the yarn office workers in Purl.
Lightyear is the next release from Pixar, which will follow the real Buzz Lightyear and his beginnings as a space ranger. Pixar tends to leave an Easter egg for the next movie inside of their releases. In Turning Red, this Easter egg can be found as a pair of stickers on Miriam’s skateboard as she and her friends walk home from school. It’s a pair of Lightyear Star Command wings and a sticker of Sox, the robot cat that Buzz befriends in the upcoming movie.
Coco, Luca, Onward, and other Pixar Easter Eggs
Paper decorations called papel picado appear on some buildings in Toronto as Mei runs through the city. These decorations are commonly used in Mexico to celebrate special occasions like weddings and holidays. In Coco, similar decorations can be seen as people celebrate Dia de los Muertos. The dream version of Devon that Mei draws and then later sees in her nightmare is a merman. In the nightmare, he is fishlike and more like a sea monster, like Luca and Alberto. The crystal from Onward and a skeleton that looks like Kevin from Up also appear on the shelf in Mei’s classroom.
As Mei is having a nightmare on the night before her first transformation, the eyes of the two temple guardian red panda statues light up in the dream and then explode as the panda spirit breaks free. This moment is reminiscent of the moment when the eyes of the great stone dragon illuminate in Mulan. Also, Ming makes Mei porridge for breakfast and arranges it in a smile, similar to the way Mushu arranges Mulan’s porridge in the animated Disney classic.
Anime Style Homage
Turning Red takes influence from a lot of other animated works, but its Studio Ghibli influence is obvious. The characters are drawn with the “bean mouth” style that is controversial in animation circles but is common in anime styles. When Mei finally accepts her red panda form, she runs triumphantly above the city to get to the 4*Town concert, similar to anime magical girls in series like Sailor Moon.
“Be Like Water” Bruce Lee Quote
While the kids are playing dodgeball at school, the coach tells them to “be like water.” This is a famous Bruce Lee quote, which also inspired the title of the 2020 documentary about his life, Be Water. Lee was one of the most famous Asian Americans of all time, known as one of the best martial artists in the world. He was influential in both the Hong Kong film industry and Hollywood, so it makes sense that a movie about a Chinese girl from North America would make a reference to Bruce Lee.
4*Town Boy Band References
The early 2000s were the height of the boy band craze, with groups like NSYNC and the Backstreet Boys taking over the Billboard charts. 4*Town, the fictional boy band that Mei and her friends are obsessed with, pulls a lot of references from real-life pop groups. Like most boy bands, 4*Town has a 5-member structure. The name of the group directly references bands like 5ive and O-Town. Promotional art for Turning Red directly references the album artwork for NSYNC’s debut album. At their Toronto concert, 4*Town also wears white outfits similar to the Backstreet Boys in the “I Want It That Way” music video. Domee Shi also cited k-pop idol groups like BIGBANG and 2PM as references for 4*Town’s style.
Priya and Mei’s Fresh Prince Handshake
In The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Will and Jazz have a special handshake that they do in every episode. In the scene where Mei meets up with her friends at school, she and Priya greet each other with a similar handshake. While The Fresh Prince would have already ended by 2002, it lived in reruns for years and remains one of the most popular 90s sitcoms, recently getting a dramatic reboot called Bel-Air.
Early 00s References And Gadgets
Turning Red is full of 2000s references, especially when it comes to the things that Mei and her friends use. When Mei first appears, she has an electronic pet handheld game strapped to her backpack. That is a toy based on the popular Tamagotchi toys that tween girls collected. Mei’s friend Priya can also be seen reading a book called Nightfall, a parody of the popular book series Twilight, which sparked a popular movie franchise with an intense fandom in the late 00s. Mei and her friends also use Jokia cell phones, based on Nokia phones, and use T9 texting. At the entrance to the temple, there are two red panda statues that Mei greets when she enters. She refers to them as Bart and Lisa, which are the names of the main characters of The Simpsons.
Toronto And Canada References
Turning Red takes place in Canada and really leans into the Canada and Toronto references. Daisy Mart, where Devon, the clerk that Mei crushes on works, is a real Canadian convenience store. Mei and her classmates attend Lester B. Pearson Middle School, which is named for the 14th Prime Minister of Canada. There are also a few references to Toronto sports teams throughout the movie. Carlton the Bear, the mascot for the Toronto Maple Leafs, appears as a plushie on Mei’s desk. Also, Tyler wears a purple basketball jersey that is similar to the Toronto Raptors jersey. Lastly, at the end of the movie, a blue jay flies from the destroyed SkyDome to the temple, referencing the Toronto Blue Jays baseball team that calls the SkyDome (now Rogers Centre) home.
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