Will Donahue ‘24
Copy Editor & Opinions Author
It’s now been a little while since I saw “Turning Red,” and I have had a good amount of time to collect my thoughts. And this might just be the recency bias talking, but “Turning Red” might just be a top five Pixar film for me. The film tells the story of Meilin Lee (Rosalie Chang), a Toronto eighth-grader who transforms into an enormous red panda when experiencing strong emotions. I thought the story was incredibly well-paced, with some great humor and endearing characters. The animation is stunning as always, and the unique stylistic choices really enhance the characters’ emotions. Overall, I think “Turning Red” deserves to stand alongside “The Incredibles” and “WALL-E” as another Pixar classic.
But as it turns out, my thoughts are not shared by everyone. As I am writing this, “Turning Red” is sitting at an audience score of 72 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, an IMDb rating of 7.1/10, and a Metacritic user score of 6.4/10. To put these ratings into perspective, a 72 percent is the lowest audience score for a Pixar film since “Cars 3” received a 69 percent in 2017. In addition, a 7.1 is the lowest IMDb rating since “Cars 3” (6.7/10), and a 6.4 is the lowest Metacritic user score since “Cars 2” (5.7/10). From these ratings, I can conclude that: 1) “Cars” is the worst Pixar franchise, and 2) audiences are divided on “Turning Red.”
So what seems to be the reason for this lukewarm audience response? According to the Metacritic user reviews, the 6.4 rating boils down to two big reasons, the first of which being that “Turning Red” is too “niche” and “unrelatable.” Evidently, this criticism is not unique to Metacritic users. In a now-deleted tweet following his controversial review of “Turning Red,” CinemaBlend managing director Sean O’Connell reinforced his stance that the film only appeals to a specific demographic: “Some Pixar films are made for universal audiences. ‘Turning Red’ is not. The target audience for this one feels very specific and very narrow. If you are in it, this might work very well for you. I am not in it. This was exhausting.” (Variety)
Contrary to these reviews, I found “Turning Red” to be Pixar’s most relatable film in a long time. For reference, I have never been to Toronto. I am not Chinese-Canadian, and I have never been a young teenage girl in the early 2000s. But broadly speaking, many of Mei’s experiences in this film are universal. Mei is relatable to anyone who has struggled with a parental figure, or anyone who has faced public humiliation, or anyone who has been in middle school. I think it goes without saying that most viewers will not come from her specific experience as a Chinese-Canadian teenage girl in the early 2000s. But if you cannot relate to characters outside of your own demographic, that is not the fault of the film.
The second major criticism I have seen of “Turning Red” has to do with the film’s “gross” content. The film does not shy away from the messiness of puberty, which some say makes “Turning Red” unsuitable for young viewers. And believe me, I was shocked by this too. I never thought I would see menstrual pads or hear the word “stripper” in a Disney film. But despite what some critics are saying, I found this to be the greatest strength of “Turning Red.” Granted, many other films and TV shows have already explored these topics in depth. But Disney has barely touched the subject of puberty until now, especially not female puberty. The brand recognition alone means the film will be viewed primarily by kids and parents – the exact people who need to hear its message the most.
“Turning Red” wants its viewers to know that puberty is nothing to be ashamed of. Because no matter how strongly some adults may feel about the matter, kids face these issues whether we like it or not. Seeing Mei draw erotic fanart or struggle with emotional outbursts could help some embarrassed pre-teen out there feel just a bit more normal. I am hoping that “Turning Red” is the first of many bolder Disney films to come, because kids deserve media that accurately represents their experiences. Keeping discussions of puberty and sexuality out of kid’s media only reinforces the taboo surrounding these topics.