Culture Warriors Are Very Upset About the Sweet and Inoffensive ‘Turning Red’

This sunny coming-of-age film has people searching for reasons to dislike it.

Turning Red, the latest film from Disney-owned animation studio Pixar, isn’t one of its more ponderous, philosophical films. It’s a sunny coming-of-age story set in the modern day—technically, it takes place 20 years ago, but this seems mainly like a device allowing the film to address contemporary concerns without being totally up to the minute—starring a precocious 13-year-old who only wants to know how to be a good daughter to her mother. Why this movie has made so many people so angry is a question for which there’s no obvious answer.

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Children’s media has become a political battleground, one where the so-called “culture war” is fought. Turning Red has become just the latest film to find itself being shot at from multiple rhetorical fronts, even though the film itself is—in a good way—pretty banal. Like many Disney and Pixar films, Turning Red depicts a child with a tumultuous relationship with her parents; in this case, having strong emotions will turn her into a giant red panda. What’s a boy-band-obsessed 13-year-old to do?

Unusually, as culture war things go, each of the types of criticism that have been lobbed at the movie feel discrete from each other—unlike, say, the question of sexuality in Luca, or the issues that came up around Encanto after New York Times columnist Ross Douthat expressed his weird beef with the movie about a child’s relationship with her grandmother not featuring a heterosexual romance. In those cases, the criticism occurred in response to the content of the film, or at least because it piggybacked on a personal problem the author was having. The criticisms of Turning Red feel both more impassioned and scattershot, as if they don’t have much to do with the actual movie.

If you’re a big animation nerd, you may have already seen complaints about Turning Red’s art style. Dubbed the “CalArts style” by Ren and Stimpy creator and accused pedophile John Kricfalusi, criticisms of it have more to do with the kind of person who draws in it rather than the art itself. (Why else would you associate it with a college, rather than the hallmarks of the style itself?) The specifics of the style that stand out most to detractors are “bean mouths”— so called because the characters’ mouths, when they smile open mouthed, look like curvy little beans—as well as an exaggerated sense of characters stretching and then snapping into position as they’re animated.

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This doesn’t seem like a very salient criticism, though; the movie is animated the way Pixar movies—and 3D animations generally—are these days. It’s fair not to like it if you don’t, but there’s nothing generally unusual about the art style of Turning Red.

Cinemablend came under fire for its review of Turning Red, which didn’t criticize the art style but rather the content of the film itself. The reviewer, who has since apologized and unpublished the review, stated that the film was unrelatable to him because of its supposedly narrow focus.

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“I recognized the humor in the film, but connected with none of it. By rooting ‘Turning Red’ very specifically in the Asian community of Toronto, the film legitimately feels like it was made for [director] Domee Shi’s friends and immediate family members,” the review read. “Which is fine—but also, a tad limiting in its scope.”

The critic was relentlessly criticized for this criticism, mostly because it was weird—the movie is very broad and relatable, if anything to a fault. As a person who does fall kinda, sorta into the demographic to which this film is most relatable—my mother is an immigrant from India and I am ever her overachieving daughter—what struck me in watching it was that although I felt very specifically referenced by the film, the issues that main character Mei faces seemed pretty broad. Have you ever wanted to live up to your parents’ expectations and struggled to do so? Congratulations, there’s definitely something in this movie for you. 

As the week has moved on, yet another strain of criticism has cropped up in Google and Rotten Tomatoes user reviews—this is again based on the content of the film, but takes a different direction. Turning Red is broadly about puberty, specifically a young girl’s experience of it. In the film, there’s a reference to her period, as well as a general acknowledgement that teenage girls going through puberty start experiencing sexual attraction  and have strong emotions. Those aspects of the movie—the harmless references to puberty and the basic facts that adolescents develop crushes and disobey their parents—have made some user reviewers proclaim that the film is simply inappropriate for children, entirely.

If you haven’t seen Turning Red, you might expect this movie to be close to Up or Soul or Inside Out in terms of its scope and scale. It isn’t. It's a well-told and in some scenes beautifully-animated coming-of-age story, but it doesn’t have quite the depth of those movies. There’s nothing about it that’s very different from them, though, or that makes it difficult to understand or relate to, unless you find the idea that main character Mei Lee has a Chinese Canadian background or is a young girl who’s awakening to her own sexuality inherently offensive. The bread and butter of Turning Red is that of so many Disney and Pixar films before it—forming close friendships, believing in yourself, and creating an identity that’s separate from your parents. In fact, the plot of this film is very similar to the Disney film Brave, about a princess from the Scottish highlands who doesn’t want to be ladylike and is cursed by a witch to become a bear until she repairs her relationship with her mother.

Turning Red is totally innocuous, which makes the critical response to it, much of it fueled by outrage and anger, all the more perplexing. There is very little to actually be enraged about by Turning Red. It’s an hour and 47 minutes of children’s entertainment. But it’s the product of a studio owned by Disney—a corporation embroiled in a culture war of its own—and touching on themes specific to young women and non-white people. It’s not a shock that specific audiences are just determined to find something truly objectionable about the film; it’s just surprising that they’re so angry when there’s so little to be angry about or to object to, and when the movie has gone so far out of its way to be sure of that. 

At the very least, the now-redacted Cinemablend review was upfront about what makes Turning Red so alienating to a certain kind of audience: It’s about a 13-year-old non-white girl, and too many people still consider it easier to relate to a talking car than to someone who does not look like them. But watching the film reveals a much simpler truth: Children have big, scary emotions, are afraid of hurting the people close to them, and want to feel their parents’ love.

Tagged:

culture war, disney, pixar, turning red

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