The discourse over Pixar’s ‘Turning Red’ turns bitter
Pixar’s first Asian-female-led movie, Turning Red, a coming-of-age tale about a Chinese-Canadian teen growing up in the early aughts, is stirring debate after a website pulled its review for calling the movie “limiting” and “exhausting.” The extremely online film community censured managing director of CinemaBlend Sean O’Connell for one particular passage in his critique explaining why he couldn’t connect with the film’s humor:
“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. Which is fine–but also a tad limiting in its scope.” He doubled down in an accompanying tweet to the article: “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.”
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Social media erupted over the “sexist, racist” review, and CinemaBlend yanked it offline while its editor-in-chief disowned it in a stern tweet. Meanwhile O’Connell deleted his tweet and apologized: “I’m genuinely sorry for my Turning Red review. … It is clear that I didn’t engage nearly enough with the movie, nor did I explain my point of view well at all. I really appreciate your feedback.”
But he had done his damage.
Outraged industry folks and commenters are continuing to call for the industry to hold “accountable” O’Connell, who sits on the board of the Critics Choice Awards. They say institutional racism persists in unfair reviews of movies that un-center white males. “Tired of white people (and lotsa dudes) looking at movies and shows about people who aren’t white (and aren’t dudes) and being like ‘I just couldn’t connect with it’ (esp. when the movies and shows are dealing with universal themes and emotions). It’s just a huge bummer,” tweeted screenwriter Gennifer Hutchison.
“A lot of this is based on the fact that people have no point of reference when it comes to an Asian story because there are so few,” blogger Phil Yu told NPR in a recent interview. “So when something like this comes along it feels like some kind of aberration because you’re forced to reckon with something you rarely experience in a movie.”
Others argue that O’Connell isn’t racist, but that Twitter bullied him into apologizing for saying that a movie just isn’t to his taste, and that editors should never hang a journalist out to dry for a subjective review. “It can’t possibly be racist to be unable to relate to a character,” said one incredulous Twitter user. “I guess ‘offensive’ in this context means ‘didn’t flatter the output of our cultural commissars,'” added another.
So what was it: the dog whistle of a closeted bigot, cancel culture run amok, or simply a bad review by an adult male unable to relate to female puberty? The film’s voice cast has since spoken out defending its actually-pretty-universal themes about the excitement and awkwardness of growing up, and a flood of positive reviews implies the cartoon’s metaphors and references are broadly accessible– it seems O’Connell’s real offense might be lazy viewing.
The film’s premise isn’t some inaccessible cultural trope, it’s the universally unavoidable human event of puberty: outspoken teen Mei Lee (Rosalie Chiang) poofs into a giant red panda when she becomes upset or distressed. It’s a wacky metaphor for her changing body and emotions. As with Shi’s short film Bao, the complex, often difficult parent-child relationship is the beating heart of the project: charming, messy Mei Lee is torn between being the perfect daughter for her helicopter mom (Sandra Oh) and embracing her weird, wild, developing self with all it brings.
While Academy award-winning director Shi brings to bear the specificity of her own teen years in a Toronto Asian community, and prods certain pressure points of living in an immigrant community, she uses them as a springboard for wider themes of parental conflict, school drama and celebrity crushes (Billie Eilish wrote the fictional 4*Town’s songs in a glorious throwback to noughties boy bands).
While some critics panned the animation’s technical merit as “lazy Studio Ghibli,” Shi purposely aimed to render 2D anime in 3D as a tribute to the Sailor Moon cartoon she grew up with. Shi used stylized animation tricks like still movement, graphically rendered emotions and side profiles to push the 2D feel; while Pixar might have fumbled the execution, the expressiveness of anime works well to reflect the intensity of Mei Lee’s evolving feelings and paints her world with the vibrance it deserves.
It’s interesting to note that, in a surprise move, Disney pulled Turning Red from its scheduled January theatrical release and shunted it straight to streaming, citing Omicron risks. But Pixar employees cried foul and accused Disney of racism after some of its other, whiter films got theater dates around the same time. The Internets may have blamed O’Connell for pointing out the apparent narrowness of Turning Red’s target demographic. But Disney, in the way it’s handled the film commercially, seems to be implying an acknowledgment of that data point.
Animation has always reflected the deeper-running cultural attitudes of its time. The John Wayne era brought brutish cartoons that taught us how to tie a shotgun in a knot, set sadistic traps and watch a deer bleed out in front of its offspring. The countercultural sixties brought a weed-smoking hippie unmasking greedy crooks and The Jetsons thriving in space, Gordon-Gekko-level toy commercialization and the exuberant ass-kickery of a prosperous age ruled 80s cartoons. Today’s animated stories are self-help journeys about coping with an electronically tethered and psychologically complicated modern existence, led by the supreme guides of personal feeling and internal experience.
Pixar, especially, has practically built a self-help brand around parsing, curating and repackaging emotional states in an attempt to tackle contemporary kid problems from the inside: Soul, Inside Out, Monsters Inc, Finding Nemo, Up, Luca, Onward–all deeply introspective allegory seeking to resolve emotional dilemmas through unique personal growth. To what degree do viewers need share the characters’ identity-driven experiences in order to more fully share their stories, and how will this dynamic shape film criticism as writers themselves interact with and (in O’Connell’s case) become part of the story?
As the interplay between entertainment and identity metastasizes online, opinion journalism may have to reevaluate its place in an evolving industry whose emerging hallmark seems to be unprecedented audience clout that it can leverage against production houses, critics, theaters, publishers and writers. Disney carefully engineered its Turning Red property, including a promotional partnership with Firefox and the renaming of a red panda at the San Francisco Zoo; shouting down negative reviews, in this case, may have served corporate goals more than social values. Agendas aside, supporters of Turning Red say its message is unifying yet diverse enough for even the harshest critic: growing up is hard to do.