10 Ways “Turning Red” Failed Thematically, None of Which are About Periods

Hey there, my name is Searnold.  I’m one of the co-hosts of the Doombots Podcast.  Here are my thoughts on Pixar’s “Turning Red”, which I’m going to assume you’ve seen, so…


Before I start listing all of its failures, I do want to point out that I enjoyed the movie.  I think the four girls (Mei, Miriam, Abby, and Priya) have a wonderful dynamic, and I would absolutely watch a show about their shenanigans (hint, hint, Pixar.)  I think Mei is a fully fleshed out 13 year old girl worthy of admiration.  And I think her panda is definitely cute enough to raise $800.

That being said:

#1: The entire premise of the movie is based on a lie.  “You only have one chance to banish it, otherwise, you will never be free,” and “The more you release it, the more difficult the ritual will be.”  Except that the ritual was not in any way affected by the panda, and all of the other pandas were re-sealed at the end of the movie with no difficulty at all.  There wasn’t even a special line from Mr. Gao about, “Oh, re-sealing is going to be so difficult.  No one’s ever done it before.  It’s a good thing we have such a big circle and a stadium sound system for singing through.”  (My point being, if this WAS the way they wanted to take the story, they still could have followed through without changing too much.)

#2: But a better warning would have been that letting the panda out makes her harder and harder to control, until instead of controlling her, she is controlling you.  This coincides with the panda as a metaphor for emotions.  It makes sense from Ming’s (the mother) p.o.v., because her panda got the best of her when she fought with the character literally named Grandma.  Plus, this would give the scene where Mei attacks Tyler much more meaning, as the audience sees Mei begin to lose control of her panda, rather than just a one-time burst of anger.

#3: Physical trauma is a sad substitute for emotional catharsis.  The best line in the movie is when Mei finally stands up to her mom and reveals her true self.  “This is me!  I’m not your little Mei Mei anymore.  I’m 13; deal with it!”  But rather than letting Mei and Ming finish their conversation, Ming gets knocked out and everybody forgives everybody else.  How much cooler would it have been if, instead of fainting, Mei’s gyrating enraged Ming to the point of completely losing control of herself.  Then the other women, rather than just needing to pull Ming into a chalk circle, would have had to transform in order to fight Panda Godzilla.  It would have been a great fight scene while still allowing them to actually finish their conversation.

#4: Alternatively (or perhaps simultaneously) they could / should have emphasized Mei’s inner conflict of choosing to defy her mother by sneaking out to the 4*Town concert.  The act of sneaking out becomes much more complicated when they realize the concert is the same night as the ritual.  What will she do?  Mei obviously struggles between being true to herself and obedient to her mother, and I would have liked to see her agonize over this decision more.

#5: Mei’s friends shouldn’t have forgiven her so easily for throwing them under the proverbial bus that is her mother.  Mei apologized, but that wasn’t enough.  Then the Tamagotchi beeps, and that somehow indicated that they weren’t actually mad at her?  So they all hugged and everything was fine again?  If Mei were mad at her friends, caring for her Tamagachi could have been a penitent act that led to forgiveness.  But THEY were mad at HER.  The correct emotional arc is for Mei to explain how difficult it is for her to go against her mother’s wishes, for the friends to have a moment of cultural understanding, see her perspective, and forgive her despite the bad choices she made.  This also could have included a great line when Ming shows up at the concert.  “That’s what happens when your mom gets mad!?  No wonder you didn’t tell her the truth.”

#6: Speaking of Tamagotchis, why was the movie set in 2002?  Was it important that Mei not own a cell phone?  Was it a reference to a mysterious, stadium-destroying disaster in Toronto that I’m not aware of?  Looking back, I don’t know that it added anything to the film.  But I was continuously on the lookout for an explanation that I never found.

#7: Jin (the dad) should have been terrified of Mei’s panda.  The only panda experience he’s had is with a 50 story out of control anger monster.  Not releasing that would be the most important thing imaginable.  His fear would have increased the stakes / perceived danger of the panda.  Comedically, it would have played into the parallel of fathers not knowing how to deal with teenage menstruation, because the audience would see his fear as irrational.  But when Ming’s huge panda is revealed, it would be a twist that increased our understanding of Jin’s character and simultaneously raised the stakes of the danger Ming’s panda poses. Finally, it makes the moment when he finds the video of Mei Mei and her friends an actual moment of character growth, as he realizes that Mei’s panda isn’t the same as Ming’s.  His CHANGE into accepting Mei’s panda makes her own acceptance of it more meaningful.

#8: You cannot show a teenage girl’s private drawings to other people.  Especially not the subject of the drawings.  The idea that Mei Mei would ever be able to forgive her mom for that is inconceivable.  Ming is the worst villain in all of fiction. All Thanos or Maleficent ever did was kill people.  What exactly did Ming think Devon had done that wasn’t a literal sex crime?  If she had said, “Did you ask her to draw these for you?”, that might have been an acceptable line.  But she says, “How dare you take advantage of her!”  Sex crime.  Ming didn’t have to bring the pictures at all.  She could have yelled something akin to, “Stay out of my daughter’s imagination!”  This would still be embarrassing enough to trigger Mei’s change, but still believable that she would ever willingly leave her room again.

#9: But even more unforgivable is that rather than follow through with this trauma, the entire film shifts into “what-should-we-do-about-the-panda” mode.  We never see Devon again.  Miriam throws away the line about Mei having said she didn’t like Devon (what a missed opportunity for a conversation about how confusing feelings can be.)  And even with the inclusion of Tyler hanging the posters, any consequence of her embarrassment is immediately replaced by her trying to hide her panda.  They could have really built her up as a social pariah in order to make the attention she gets as a panda more meaningful and controversial than just for raising money.

Also, I don’t know if any of the creators of the movie ever went to public school, or if they actually know what schools are, but parents are allowed to walk into the front office and say, “My daughter forgot this discreet package.  Please take it to her.”  This happens at least once a day at literally every school.

#10: This last one is easier to forgive because it’s so fundamentally wrapped up with the premise of the movie, but I really want to know why not a single person is fazed by the appearance of giant, talking red pandas.  At least one reference to the fact that they live in a magical world would have been nice.  Maybe during Mei’s intro monologue.  At least wink at it, rather than completely ignoring it altogether. 

In conclusion, the movie in my head is better than the movie I actually watched.  The premise was strong, all the story beats were in the right places, but they dropped the ball when it comes to thematic statements and genuine emotion. Thanks for reading!

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