On March 11th, Pixar Studio’s latest film, Turning Red, debuted on Disney+. While it’s been out for less than a month, it’s already made a significant cultural splash, receiving both widespread acclaim and pointed criticism. Turning Red received a staggering 94% critic rating on Rotten Tomatoes, yet it has been subject to a number of rather negative high profile reviews and is only averaging about 3.5/5 stars from audience reviews. By these metrics, Turning Red polarizes audiences more than any other film Pixar has released. This raises questions about what makes this new release so controversial.
To better understand the divisive nature of Pixar’s latest film, it’s important to fully appreciate its context, as Turning Red achieved several major milestones for Pixar Studios. Directed by Domee Shi, the film is the first of Pixar's to have a female Asian lead and with directing credit given solely to a woman. And perhaps most notably, it’s the first time Pixar has attempted to explicitly discuss topics like puberty and teenage sexuality.
But despite these heavier-than-average topics, Domee Shi still created an enchanting and heartwarming story, presenting these issues with a uniquely playful twist. The main character, Meilin Lee, suddenly discovers her ability to transform into a red panda, humorously allegorizing the experience of puberty. Even the first scene, in which Mei realizes her newfound power and inability to control it, works on many different levels. From the frenetic pacing of the editing, to the film’s well-written lines of dialogue, Shi manages to convey Meilin’s shock, humiliation, and confusion succinctly and understandably.
Ultimately, this narrative device, animation style, and thematic topics all combine to create a film that is quite unlike almost any other Pixar project. Yet, it's these whimsical creative choices that really make the film’s style so outstanding and memorable.
There’s no doubt as to the popularity of Turning Red. Yet, some nuance behind responses to this movie arises when considering the sentiment behind many negative reviews. Unsurprisingly, conservative magazines, traditional parenting sites, and fundamentalist movie critics seem to have the most to say about Turning Red. This is likely the case for a few reasons. As previously noted, it's essentially unheard of for big-studio animation to address topics such as menstruation so directly. On top of that, Shi goes out of her way to include Chinese culture and a diverse portrayal of the Asian-Canadian community in Toronto. The first ten minutes of the film feature Meilin dashing through the heart of Toronto’s Chinatown, interacting with a wide ensemble of characters, and giving a tour of her family temple to curious tourists.
To prepare for this, Pixar’s animation team visited Chinese temples and famous Chinatowns to ensure that they were accurately and holistically depicting the film’s setting. Animators also extensively studied the history of Toronto’s Asian population and its cultural subtleties. This attention to detail is apparent in the simplest of scenes – for example, many are calling the numerous sequences of Meilin’s parents preparing food Pixar’s best and most accurate depictions of cultural cuisine to date. Additionally, Turning Red features a rather broad array of characters. Several generations of Meilin’s family feature prominently in the film, with both the men and women playing pivotal roles. And in Meilin’s group of friends, ethnic diversity is accompanied with queer-coding, which is yet another step towards inclusion that animated films have traditionally shied away from. In a way then, it feels almost inevitable that a flock of culturally conservative movie-goers would have their feathers ruffled by a departure from the tried and true narrative formula for children’s movies.
Whether Turning Red will end up as an inconsequential or impactful film in the grand scheme of American pop culture is still to be seen. Regardless, it has clearly (albeit briefly) become one of the latest points of contention in the ongoing culture war. And so irrespective of the entertainment value, excellent storyline, or high production value, some people will choose to dislike Turning Red. It is, after all, a successful creative project that departs from some often-overused character tropes, instead telling the story of a specific and underrepresented culture.
If anything, as viewers we ought to value unique movies with nuanced messages. The magic of cinema comes from its ability to introduce us to new ideas and perspectives. Anyone can stare in a mirror, but movies like Turning Red afford the rare opportunity to peer into a world different than our own, and that’s something that most negative reviews seem to miss.