“Turning Red”

I had a strong negative reaction to Pixar’s “Turning Red,” which actually surprised me. This film has the gold standard animation and technical proficiency audiences have come to expect from the studio, but the story and characters leave much to be desired. Just because a film should be commended for featuring more diverse representation and attempting to shatter what many consider a taboo topic doesn’t automatically make it good. The end result is a film that’s trying too hard, feels like it’s aimed solely at giggling preteen girls, and features a very lazy metaphor for puberty and womanhood.

The film gets off to a shockingly rough start and if not for the quality of the visuals, it would quickly be indistinguishable from the garbage pile of other inferior animated movies. The script is thin, with screenwriters Julia Cho and Domee Shi telling the story of a dorky 13-year-old girl named Meilin (Rosalie Chiang) who is just starting to navigate the chaotic era of adolescence. Her protective mother Ming (Sandra Oh) is nosy, constantly hovering over her daughter. One night, Meilin discovers that whenever she gets too excited, she morphs into a giant red panda — and she gets excited a lot. It’s later revealed that this condition has plagued all women in her family, and the trick is being able to control it.

This thing is just plain weird. First, it features unexpected topics and themes for a Disney / Pixar movie. It may be startling for some to hear such frank conversations about menstruation and becoming a woman. This may be the first mainstream animated movie to feature feminine hygiene products. Kids too young won’t understand, but it may open the door to questions that some parents may not be ready to answer. It’s terrific that the film attempts to shatter taboos about women’s periods, but this is a bit of a surprising topic to see in an animated family movie. (I realize this may make me sound uptight and like a prude, but I assure you I am neither of those things; but I feel like parents should be aware).

I remember what it was like to be a 13 year old girl, and the film doesn’t accurately capture that age group. Meilin’s small group of friends are her ride-or-die besties, and all they dream of is going to see the hottest boy band on the planet. They sit around and swoon over photos of their celebrity crushes. This part of the story feels real, but so much of it does not.

The hardest thing for the movie to overcome (and sadly, it never does) is how extremely annoying Meilin’s character turns out to be. Not only does she have throwaway, groan-worthy lines like “my panda, my choice, mom!” (yes, really), but she is not a likeable little girl. Meilin may have an enviable confidence, but it’s not a good thing when your leading lady is super irritating. I couldn’t wait for “Turning Red” to end just so I didn’t have to spend time with her anymore.

By: Louisa Moore

22 comments

  1. do characters really have to be likeable to be good characters though? I know if my 13-year-old self would probably be very annoying if put to screen. And why shouldn’t the film be frank about menstruation? Why portray a pubescent girl if you’re not going to be honest about her life? Im just not sure that those criticisms are valid.

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    1. Thanks for the comment. Have you seen the film? Really interested in hearing your thoughts on it. The big issue is that she is able to do a “ritual” to rid herself of all puberty problems. Not a great message to give to young girls, as they don’t have a choice in the matter. Also, I can think of dozens of films with 13 year old little girl and boy characters that aren’t annoying. So I do see that as a very valid criticism.

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    2. If the audience hates a character they’re supposed to like and root for, then it means it’s not a good character. But how can we objectively decide what exactly is a “good/bad character”? I’d argue that unintentionally(!) annoying characters are bad characters, since they fail to achieve what the creators wants to achieve (and this is always a bad thing, it’s a failure). But there are two problems with this approach already: (1) No character is ever annoying to everyone. A critic who likes and relates to Mei will consider her a good character because the creator achieved her goal. But another critic might hate her, so from their perspective Mei is a bad character, since the creator failed to achieve the intended effect. (2) If the creator intentionally made her character annoying, then it’s not necessarily a bad character. If we can see a flaw is intentional, it’s not really considered a flaw. In which case we don’t hate the character. But then again, there’s no objective way to prove if something was intentional or not. It’s just our own intuition.

      So, the criticism here is not: “I think Mei is a bad character because she’s dorky/nerdy/noisy/whatever and I don’t like this trait”. That’s not an argument. The criticism is “I think Mei is a bad character because the creator failed to achieve her goal, which was to make me root for this girl.” This is a valid (though still subjective and personal!) argument.

      The thing is, there are no objective reviews. They’re just opinions supported by arguments (which are, again, drawn from personal experience). Every criticism is in fact an opinion and I’m of the view that every opinion is valid. The problem only arises when an opinion is supported by invalid (which doesn’t equal subjective!) arguments.

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    3. What I don’t like is the idea of young women being presented like they have to be unlikable. I know there probably are some who are, and maybe the movie is just being honest about that, but I also like to see the best in people, and I find it condescending to say all women are incapable of that. I guess I’ll just have to wait to see the movie to decide for myself whether it fits into that fine line between understandable and condescending or not.

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    4. A character doesnt have to be likeable, but relatable regardless of any role or any situation, like what would we feel if we went through that. Or our sister, cousin? What they went through if it was them?

      Even if its a situation we may never be, lost in space or the walking dead. If we cant relate to the character regardless to the situation she is in its hard to enjoy the movie.

      So the other part of it is, do we want to understand someone who isnt relatable and unlikeable? This is only a 2 hr film and our time span is quite short to give that much attention to someone we dont care for.

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  2. Pixar is trying too hard to be diverse? This is their first film directed by a woman and out of 25 films, only the second film directed by an Asian director. Diversity is a fact of life, but US films have lacked that fact for years. And critiquing the movie for being aimed “solely” at preteen girls wouldn’t be a bad thing. Most every blockbuster from the 80s and 90s was aimed “solely” at preteen boys, and no one complained about that. No one ever said “TMNT is only aimed at preteen boys, I have no way of sympathizing with these characters.” I know you, Louisa, were one of those goofy little kids like me who watched “At the Movies with Siskel and Ebert” while others were goofing off with their pack of diehard friends who seemed annoying from afar. A movie made by someone with a different background isn’t made to be about you or me, it’s about bridging a gap between you and me and the director. What Ebert referred to as “empathy machines.”

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    1. Very valid points here. What I’m talking about is the inclusivity that feels forced though the characters. It’s like Pixar is trying to say, “hey, we have always been about diversity, SEE?!,” and then pointing to a film like this. I think diversity both in front of and behind the camera is extremely important, but everything about this film felt forced and inauthentic.

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      1. Hmm, I’m a 55 year old Canadian born man whose parents were Asian and when I grew up in Toronto every one of my friends was ethnically different (few Asian descent and mostly European immigrant area). So to me the diversity in the movie was spot on.
        I think the ‘ritual’ was more about suppressing the rebellious individuality and conforming to the traditional Asian family expectations. This was the similar point of contention in ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ with the boyfriend’s mother’s disdain for the American born Chinese woman’s ‘self-centered’ individuality.The ‘Asian Tiger Mom’ vs. child conflict is also something that I very familiar with since I teach kindergarten to high school children in Japan. I feel very sorry for some of my best students because their high academic achievements have come at the expense of enjoying their childhood and pop culture.

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  3. Although this heroine would be very much me back in 2002, I did find the movie a bit obnoxious (from an adult’s perspective) and do not at all blame parents for feeling uncomfortable showing a movie with these themes to their young kids. For Pixar standards, it was very underwhelming. I think it had good ideas…but they could have been better executed. I’m all for more mother-daughter stories…but I thought Brave’s story had much more heart than this.

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  4. The fact that the film itself may have been confusing and focused on a young girls life is good.

    But the lessons learned are forced upon us. Things in her life seems “trivial” and things that most of us can go through growing up.

    But the story magnifies these lessons to an extreme and having an intervention of changing to a panda to have a relationship with her mom. When most of us would sit down and talk to our friends and parents to solve these daily issues.

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  5. The question goes back to most of us who didnt change into a panda…. And i think it seems thats what made her special where everyone else in reality is left behind with these same problems.

    Then you compare it with a film like “coco” where miguel went to the land of the dead and came back through real means of “reminding” everyone is special and his own experience and dreams that was able to translate to changing people.

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  6. Did you hate this movie than “Inside Out”? I had a Facebook friend that posted a total rant against this film. She found it offensive in so many ways citing many more examples than you cited. I haven’t seen the film and I have no interest in seeing it but it sounds like it is inappropriate for its target audience. Here’s an excerpt of the many things she cited against this film:

    -The ritual is suuuuper freaky where she is levitated by her chest into the air while surrounded by adults chanting and spirits are called out of her.
    -She tells her tamagotchi its about to meet its daddy and uncles (referring to the band members being her tamagotchis daddy)
    -There is a big scene about the girl getting her period and her mom bringing pads to her school and embarrassing her.
    -The little girl draws “sexy” (her words not mine) pictures of her crush who works at the gas station. Her mom finds the drawings of her shirtless crush and brings them to the store and accuses the boy of being 30 and a pedophile. He says he’s 17 and she says “well that’s what happens when you do drugs all day and don’t wear sunscreen”
    -At the end the girl stands up to her mom and says she likes boys, music and gyrating. Says she’s 13 so deal with it!
    -The little girl then starts twerking at her mom and smacking her butt saying “take this mom! take this”
    -Final quote when the little girl decides to turn into a panda in public and her mom asks her not to she says “my panda, my choice”. Read into that what you’d like.

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    1. It’s an awful movie. Awful. While I didn’t find it offensive, it has a ton of issues. I think many critics are afraid to give it a poor review just because it features diversity in its story. I like that aspect of it, but a bad movie is a bad movie. Thanks for commenting!

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