Those wags at Pixar, eh? Yes, the most – actually, the only – impressive thing about Turning Red is the four-tiered wordplay of its title. Thirteen-year-old Mei (Rosalie Chiang) finds herself turning into a large red panda at emotive moments. She is also, simultaneously, riding the crimson wave for the first time. Further, as a teenager, she characteristically suffers from acute embarrassment (mostly due to the actions of her domineering mother Ming Lee, voiced by Sandra Oh). And finally, of course, Turning Red can be seen diligently spreading communist doctrine left, right and centre. To any political sensibility tuning in to Disney+, basically (so ones with either considerable or zero resistance to woke). Take a guess which of these isn’t getting press in reference to the movie? And by a process of elimination is probably what it it’s really about (you know in the same way most Pixars, as far back as Toy Story and Monsters, Inc. can be given an insidious spin).
On the outside at least, Turning Red is yet another of Disney/Pixar’s wretchedly transparent, virtue-signalling attempts at culturally-specific inclusivity. One might suggest these manoeuvres are not a little patronising, but most critics are too woked up, or fearful of the movement’s Twitterati adherents, to say boo to a giant red panda. So Mei – in the footsteps of all females in her family – is subject to an ancestral curse. She assists at their Chinese temple too (as much as the movie is focussed on rejecting familial ties that bind, it is hamstrung into cooperating with traditional cultural values interweaving with the same).
Mei’s also one of those obnoxiously hyper-confident juveniles only Hollywood animators find appealing (see also The Mitchells and the Machines). This may be partly intentional – descriptions of her include “A very enterprising, mildly annoying young lady”, “A major weirdo” and “An overachieving dorc-narc”, all fair – but there’s also a slavish desire to reflect and validate tween obsessions, further limiting the appeal of director Domee Shi’s milieu. Mei obsesses over boy group 4-Town, and a major plot point involves her and three best pals planning to see them perform (furnished with “authentic” tunes from Billie Eilish. You know, the one who delivered the most recent of entirely forgettable recent Bond songs).
Because, being Disney and essentially devoted to eroding the family unit while appearing to embrace the same, Mei’s true family – or fam, as Dominic Toretto would say – comprises her best chums, who enable her to control the red menace within. Her mother, as a counterpoint, is insanely overbearing. Which, loaded dice as it is, admittedly carries a degree of dramatic engagement. In due course, such tensions lead to her asserting herself, breaking the family unit’s authoritarian control structure (“I’m changing, mom. I’m finally figuring out who I am”). It is thus Mei, rather than her deranged and explosive mother, who is mature and considered, in the final analysis. Dad, meanwhile, is effectively the Hausfrau; he makes food, mum calls the shots. The “be who you really are” message might be interpreted in various ways, but “letting the beast out” is construed as an entirely positive mode of expression. Except when it isn’t (Mei’s mum). Emasculated dad tells Mei: “People have all kinds of sides to them, Mei, and some sides are messy”.
The gist of the above is, to a greater or lesser extent, par for the course, then. Where Turning Red distinguishes itself, if you want to call it that, is in making the red panda puberty metaphor overt. “Did the red peony bloom?” Mei is asked. “I’m a gross red monster!” she complains. Always best to overstate one’s subtext, just in case anyone might not get the – ahem – bleedin’ obvious; Mei is having her first period and she is turning into a large red panda as a metaphor for having her first period.
Is producing a family animation about the physical changes undergone during adolescence Pixar’s best foot forward? How far into this territory do they wish to stray? Were this about a boy, would his parents leave a box of tissues on his bedside table and some jazz mags in the bottom drawer? The director is open to a sequel. How about they depict Mei smoking weed, smacking herself with heroin, or OxyContin, experiencing teenage pregnancy followed swiftly by a backstreet abortion, all the while trapped in an abusive relationship with a toxic white (privileged) male? They could even take a leaf out of Paul Thomas Anderson’s book and make him 25.
Pixar’s desire to tackle all things progressive, irrespective of whether its audience needs or deserves such a beating, has seen their LGBTQIA+ employees issue a statement regarding Disney – that’s Disney, the wokest of the woke of Hollywood studios – being somewhat backward when it comes to such matters: this coming in light of the studio failing to meet expectations in its response to the Florida “Don’t Say Gay” bill. Which, if they’re coming up short, you can bet relates somewhere to the perceived effect overt endorsements may be having on their balance sheet (certainly, their many woke exhibitions among the MCU and Lucasfilm have received a rocky reception. But do not fear, they will continue unabated).
Per the statement, it seems Pixar’s attempts to include “overtly gay affection” were rebuffed by Disney. Never mind, though, I’m sure, before long, they’ll get to be exactly as explicit as they long to be. As Mei tells her mum “I like gyrating. I’m thirteen. Deal with it”. Yeah, deal with it, prudes! Let Pixar sexualise minors if they want to! Let them state outright that Tyler is gay! That Miriam is trans! Let them purchase the rights to a Cuties animated spin-off!
The director has cited her anime influences, lest you wondered at the repetitive inclusion of irritating big twinkly eyes (all the better to underline the movie’s superficial, pop-tween sensibility). She appears to have resisted hentai, but who knows whether that too was purely because of backward Disney edicts. When mum asks “Now is there anything else I should know about Mei-Mei?” of a potentially molesting boy, Mei ought to have replied, “Yes, your Disney+ subscription”.
Sean O’Connell’s Cinemablend review, meanwhile, was taken down because he dared to suggest Turning Red was too culturally specific to appeal to a broad audience. In which regard, he was clearly wrong, since it was certainly no more so than other recent culturally specific Disney fare (has there been any other focus in animated Disney fare recently?) I suspect he was mostly getting at the movie being aimed at just-menstruating teenage girls, however. Which is a demographic, but in comparison to the average Pixar, it’s also inarguably a narrow-ish one.
But let’s not get side-tracked. This is all by-the-by the movie’s prevailing message. All the kids at school want to spend time with Mei the red panda, secure in the knowledge of hugs and protection and affection (ie, they all want to become commies). Added to which, all the Chinese-Canadian families are hiding their red pandas within (their communist credentials). Unless she goes through a ritual (deprogramming), Mei will remain an overt communist forever; by association, her indoctrinated bezzie mates will also remain communists. This is the way forward. The way of the Great Reset. Pixar be praised! (With the likes of Turning Red and Red Notice, and current geo-political events revved up, the titles alone might be identified as predictive programming, regardless of the movies’ content.)
If you’ve read my takes on Pixar/Disney animations of recent years, you’ll know I’ve been prevailingly unimpressed. As a piece of compelling storytelling with strong, appealing characters, Turning Red represents another let down. In terms of increments, it offers more dramatic engagement than other most recent efforts, but the counterweight is the underlying intent and off-putting execution. There’s also the payoff that Mei is now an “out” panda (oh look, more metaphors). Quite why the US Government hasn’t hauled her off to a secure facility for further testing is anyone’s guess, but presumably those aren’t the kind of overtly impacting societal issues the studio cares to address.
First published by Now in Full Color on 13/03/22