In my innocence, I sat down to watch Turning Red with my kids this weekend. I had no idea that, while we watched, my fellow moms were tapping out warnings about the lurid, perverse, and downright SEXIFIED themes and images Disney Pixar would foist on an unsuspecting audience.
I read the reviews after the movie, and I regret to inform you that everyone is nuts.
So even though I thought Turning Red was a fairly flawed movie, I’m going to review it because some of the reviews out there are unusually whackadoo. (Caveat: I only watched the movie once, so maybe I got some details wrong.) This review will include spoilers. I watched it with girls ages 7, 10, 13, 14, 16, and 20 and my son, 18, and my husband, and we all liked it, but had a lot to talk about afterwards. And I had one big complaint.
It’s a coming of age movie. It’s about a group of girls hitting puberty, noticing boys, starting to realize their parents don’t know everything, and figuring out what it means to grow up; and it’s about her mother dealing with all of these things. The target audience is not little kids. It won’t hurt them to watch it, but it wasn’t made for them.
Here’s the trailer:
The plot (again, spoilers): Mei and her loving but overbearing mother are caretakers for an ancestral temple. Suddenly, Mei suffers an abrupt transformation: Strong emotions turns her into a giant red panda. It turns out the gods bestowed the power to become a savage animal on one of her ancestors so she could defend her family, but subsequent women in her family have gone through a ritual where they fight down the inner animal and contain it in a talisman. Mei discovers she can control it by thinking calm thoughts about the love of her friends, but she agrees to do the ritual. Her mother calls the family but oh no! The ritual is on the same day as the concert she and her friends want to go to. Mei defies her parents and decides to trust her own powers to not turn into a red panda. Mei’s mom is so upset that she re-pandafies herself humongously and goes on a destructive but hilarious rampage, and can only be stopped when all the aunts also become pandas. They all then undergo the ritual again, but Mei decides not to go through with it, choosing instead to remain a person who is sometimes a panda. At the end, she uses this power to promote the temple where she works with her mom.
It was entertaining throughout, and the characters were appealing and had a little more depth and melancholy than you often see in children’s animated movies. The girls’ silliness and sorrows were presented with a good combination of comedy and compassion, so you could laugh with recognition at how ridiculous their problems are, but also feel deeply how deeply they felt them. The funny parts were really funny, and Mei and her friends came across as actual middle school weirdos, not with slick, pre-packaged quirks, but the kind of weirdness that makes them a little obnoxious and stupid sometimes, as well as endearing and unpredictable. Toward the end, Mei meets her mother as a girl, and realizes that she had the same doomed yearning to please her own mother, so, yeah, I cried.
I liked that it was really, truly about girls. Not an adventure story that they plugged a girl into; not a girl showing what she’s made of by cutting off her hair and kicking ass. Just girls acting like girls, and being good friends to each other. I liked that her friends loved and supported her when they thought she was being awesome and when they thought she was being a goody-goody. I didn’t like that they encouraged her to sneak around her parents, but it was realistic. The vibe was more Derry Girls than Girls Gone Wild.
I liked the dad. At first they played him as the goofy, ineffectual lesser partner, but then he sits down with his daughter and kindly teaches her that strong emotions are part of her, and that stuffing them into an amulet is not necessarily the best way to deal with them. This is pretty good advice, and it was good to see a quiet but wise dad with emotional intelligence, who had a good relationship with his daughter, and respects his wife but is maybe a little sad about the past. The parents clearly have interior lives, which you don’t often see in kid’s movies.
The reviewers complaining about hypersexualized scenes were disturbingly off the mark. The scene where Mei is taunting her mother and shaking her butt happens because her mother is literally a raging monster and has to be lured into the magic circle. The scenes where the girls say things like “now we’re women” or where they say they’re going to go in girls and come out women are played with a wink. This is clearly what the girls think, and it’s clearly untrue. The scene where Mei is under the bed sweating, and one reviewer said it showed her having her first orgasm? To those who are defiled, nothing is pure. These are just kids hitting puberty and noticing sexy thoughts in a very typical, slightly ridiculous way. My teen girls totally realized they were being teased, and they thought it was funny.
You moms who think it’s sick and perverse and an emergency and heartbreaking that Disney would put puberty in a cartoon, YOU ARE GOING TO TURN UP IN SOMEONE’S CARTOON SOMEDAY. And you’re not going to like how they draw you.
It mentions Mei’s period, several times. It’s not gross or explicit; it just talks about it, because she’s 13. It deals with it in a way that is extremely familiar to girls and women; i.e.; it’s uncomfortable to talk about, but it happens anyway, and nobody asked for it, and mom tries to help and makes it worse, and ugh, but oh well, period. This is really not hair-on-fire stuff. It’s actually a gift for you, if you’ve had a hard time trying to get yourself to introduce the topic to your kids. This movie may make it a bit easier. (For the people who think boys shouldn’t know about periods: You’re making the world worse.)
It has some weird ritualistic magicalistic scenes. It’s not terribly scary except for some glowing eyes and bared teeth. If you were planning to show your kids a movie about a girl turning into a red panda and then you’re shocked that there’s magic, I don’t know what to tell you.
So, there was a lot to like about the movie. It’s very much about the things we do because of anxiety, and how to do better, and about not trying to be someone you’re not, but learning to work with who you are, and it’s about (or at least wants to be about) whether we just love each other, or if we have to earn each other’s love. It does show pretty egregious defiance without a lot of comeuppance, but a lot of shit went down over the course of the movie, and these are clearly people who are invested in having a good relationship with each other, so I feel pretty confident this family will work it out. This isn’t a “mommy knows best” movie, but it’s not a “kids know best” movie, either; it’s a “kids are their own people, and that’s how they learn” movie.
And it was yet another therapy movie. Which are fine as far as they go, but which I hope we can start getting past as a society soon, because writers are learning that, if you lean heavily enough on themes of working through family trauma, people will not notice giant gaping plot holes.
But I noticed.
Look, I’m sorry this is so long, but this is driving me crazy. And it’s something Old Good Pixar never would have put up with.
The entire plot hinges on Mei’s choice: Is she going to suppress her panda, or is she going to “keep it?” Is she going to go through the ritual to contain her explosive emotional power in a piece of jewelry like most of her ancestors, or will she be her own person?
But they never supply a real reason why it’s a dilemma. It takes Mei a few days to get used to occasionally poofing into a red panda, but apparently all she has to do is imagine being with her friends, and that calms her down enough so she can control it almost entirely. She thinks people in school will shun her, but in fact the other girls think she’s adorable (in a funny scene where their eyes become huge and sparkly). It not only makes her popular, she uses her power to quickly raise almost $800. So not only is there no real peril in this alleged dilemma, but she gets immediately rewarded in several ways for choosing one side, and that turns out to be the right choice for her, and her ancestor smiles at her. It’s like the opposite of Russian roulette: none of the chambers are loaded.
This is the very same shortcut they took in the movie Luca, which was another charming, beguiling movie that set up a conflict and then didn’t quite take the trouble to work through its implications. In Luca, sea monsters are hated and feared and reviled; and humans are viewed the same way by sea monsters. But when Luca transforms, it takes him about eleven seconds to realize that nobody is actually bad or evil or dangerous, and everyone is actually fine and cool and neat. And there is never any explanation for why Luca is able to reconcile himself to this idea so quickly, and no one else, in the history of ever, has been able to see the truth, but has always clung to their prejudices for no reason at all.
Both movies take for granted that the viewer is already thinking: People in the past didn’t understand things; but people nowadays do understand things. Okay? Okay. So now we do the plot.
This is lazy, lazy, lazy. The broad themes of both movies were that people (in Luca, it was some people; in Turning Red, it was all people, or all women, or maybe all women in this family? This, too, is sloppy) have some kind of weird, untamed, messy side to them, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. But they skip over explaining to the audience why anyone would think it is a bad thing. It’s like going to a bakery where they offer two kinds of donuts, and there’s a big struggle, and in the end . . . you get donuts. Nothing wrong with donuts, but it’s not exactly a good story.
You may say that, in Turning Red, this is deliberate, because both choices (to keep the panda, or not) are valid. Mei’s father clearly kinda liked his wife’s wild side; and Mei told her mom it was okay to contain her panda again, because that’s what she wanted to do. Both choices are presented as okay, so that’s why there’s no clear right or wrong choice, and that’s why they didn’t present it as a perilous decision.
But this theory doesn’t hold up, because Mei’s grandmother makes a point of telling Mei that the more she lets her panda out, the harder it will be to contain during the ritual. I may be remembering wrong, but I think she even said that it can only be done once, and must be done perfectly. But as it turns out, if there is an emergency, you can just go ahead and smash your talisman and let your panda out to fight for a while, and then draw another circle and do another ritual and calmly step back through the mystical mirror and – schloop! – your panda just goes back where she belongs, no harm, no foul. So in fact, the choice that all the women made was meaningless, because you can apparently go back on it at any time.
And in fact, you cannot even argue that both choices are valid, because Mei’s mom, as a red panda, completely demolished the Sky Dome. It’s never explained whether she will be sent a bill, or what. I know this is a commonly excused plot hole in superhero movies, but the movie explicitly asked us to consider whether or not Mei ought to allow herself to become a giant monstrous creature. I feel like “will she sometimes wreck half the city?” should be part of the conversation. (Insert “now who’s turning red, communism/captitalism” joke here; I’m too tired.)
EDIT: A few folks have pointed out that, in fact, Mei and her mom are shown raising money to rebuild the Sky Dome at the end, so I just whiffed this part. Sorry!
I have one other complaint, and that is how it looked. I believe they were going for a style that would appeal to the kids who were 13 in the year 2002, and that makes sense. But in practice, it came across as Dreamworks-trashy.
Bottom line: Not a must-see, by any means, but watchable, and will probably be important to some people for emotional reasons. It’s an interesting movie, and no doubt will influence others. I reviewed it mainly to counteract all the bananas reviews that were out there. For my money, The Little Mermaid has a far more insidious message for little girls than this movie, so everyone needs to be cool.