“In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did whatever seemed right to him.” (CSB – Read the chapter)
What would you do if you had an animal inside waiting to come out? I don’t just mean that you have a bit of a wild streak you let hang out on occasion. I mean you have a literal animal spirit inside of you that can turn you into said animal at will…once you learn how to control it with the help of some friends. And what if this animal happened to be a 10-foot tall, fluffy, red panda? Well, I suppose in that case you would have Pixar make an animated movie telling your story. We are a couple of weeks past the small-screen opening of the latest Disney-Pixar movie, Turning Red, and it has so far managed to generate a whole lot more conversation and criticism than just about any of its predecessors. The reasons for this are many. Some of the criticism hasn’t been particularly thoughtful, but a fair bit of it has made some pretty sound points. Let’s talk this morning about the movie, the good, the bad, and whether it’s worth your time.
From the opening sequence of Turning Red, there’s no doubt you are immersing yourself in another Pixar world. There’s a reason a Pixar film has won the Oscar for best animated feature film 11 times since 2000. (For comparison, Disney has just three wins, Dreamworks has two, and nobody else has more than one.) They do what they do really, really well. They are where all the best animators and storytellers go to create generally wonderful pieces of art. Each film explores some big idea through a storytelling medium that was originally designed and intended for children. They have consistently managed to thread the needle to create films that children love, but which are also deep enough for parents to enjoy. Honestly, they’ve explored such challenging issues with such beauty and grace they’ve brought tears to my eyes on more than one occasion. The opening sequence of Up alone is probably what garnered it its Oscar win.
All of this is to say, Pixar tends to do what they do exceedingly well. And, for the most part, their films have handled the various issues they’ve tackled in ways that, as followers of Jesus, we can fairly wholeheartedly endorse. Going back to Up, the idea that grief is a journey best taken with someone, and that pouring into someone else is one of the best ways through it is profoundly resonant with the Scriptures. Brave presents a young woman trying to assert her will on her family, only to make a mess of things. Her selfishness produces all kinds of chaos and is resolved in the end when she repents and patches things up with her parents. Luca reminds us that we are called to love everyone, not just the people who look like us. Now, no, they haven’t gotten every single thing right along the way, but with Christians working in some key locations throughout the company, their influence is pretty clear in the final products.
Then there’s Turning Red. Turning Red takes us into the Chinese Canadian community of Toronto in the mid-1990s. It revolves around the Lee family (Jin, Ming, and Meilin), who operate a temple dedicated to ancestor worship which doubles as a tourist destination teaching visitors about traditional Chinese culture. Meilin is a spunky 13-year-old who is trying to figure out how to be her own woman and do her own thing just like all her friends are doing while at the same time honoring her parents’ desires for her life (especially her mom’s). What Meilin doesn’t know is that hundreds of years before, the ancestor who is the focus of their little temple was given the ability to turn into a giant red panda in order to protect her family from an invading army after her husband had been killed. This ability has been passed down matrilineally from one generation to the next ever since. Every woman in the family since has had this gift manifest itself in conjunction with the onset of puberty. Meilin herself makes this discovery when she wakes up one morning as a giant red panda. Like most parents, Jin and Ming figured they had a little bit more time before they crossed that particular threshold, and hadn’t told her a thing about it. Needless to say, it all comes as a bit of a shock.
After a variety of hijinks, Meilin learns to control her transformations with the help of her best friends. Her particular condition becomes a source of great fun along with a moneymaking opportunity that will allow them to raise the funds they need to attend the concert of the boy band, 4*Town, when they perform in Toronto. Unfortunately, all of this happens in secret because Meilin’s mom has not only forbidden her going to the concert, but has asked her to not let the red panda out anymore because it will render more difficult the ritual every daughter of the family has been through to lock the creature away in order to facilitate a normal life. This sets up the primary tension of the film and introduces its real theme.
The movie is about parents and budding teenagers figuring out how to navigate that particular journey in a way that leaves every with some semblance of satisfaction. And for the most part they do an…okay job. The fact that Meilin has two parents who are committed to each other and to her sets the whole family up with the best possible context for exploring this season of life together. In families with parents who are estranged from one another, or in blended families, things are made far more challenging than they might otherwise be. The film gives us a few glimpses of her parents talking without Meilin around, and the picture is a normal one, if not a totally healthy one. They are at least willing to listen to one another and strive to respect one another even where they don’t agree on the best way forward. Ming is without a doubt a “tiger mom,” but Jin’s quiet character is absolutely committed to his family in ways that are self-sacrificing and humble. Ming spends a fair bit of time wrestling with her own past, but finally leans into her husband who is ready to embrace her with supportive love. On the whole, the picture of Meilin’s family is a positive one.
The movie isn’t all sunshine and roses. Perhaps the least consequential criticism is that this isn’t a kids’ movie. Pixar has fairly consistently made movies that, even though they address some pretty weight themes, do so in ways that parents can comfortably watch with even their youngest children. Soul wrestles with questions of the meaning of life, but there weren’t any parts I was wishing my youngest son wasn’t in the room to see when we watched it. (Well, we only watched about half of it because they all got bored, and I never got around to finishing it by myself.)
Turning Red, though, is a movie about becoming a teenager that makes mention of particular parts of a young girl’s journey into adolescence (namely, several euphemistic as well as direct mentions of having a period) that parents with younger kids aren’t necessarily ready to have to explain to their more observant tots. For Pixar to take it upon itself to force these conversations when parents in their greater wisdom when it comes to the needs of their own children weren’t yet ready to have them wasn’t okay to do. As a preacher who communicates each week to an audience ranging from five to 95, while I am always going to preach the whole counsel of Scripture even when it’s hard, there are certain parts I’m going to handle in ways that won’t force parents to have to explain things to their kids they weren’t yet ready to explain. Pixar burned through a lot of hard-earned parental trust by this film that will be tough to reclaim.
Disney as a corporation lately is in an uncomfortable war with itself. It has created a decidedly left-leaning corporate culture over the last generation that is increasingly wanting to shred envelops and actively advocate for a worldview that a great majority of its primary money-spending audience doesn’t share. As a company, their primary value has long been making money which is why they’ve been carefully selective of which causes they support, and which causes they ignore. As the aggressively progressive elements of their corporate culture grow bolder and bolder, though, their primary value is not making money, but advancing their particular worldview. As our culture as a whole begins to slowly trend back in a slightly more conservative direction as the progressive elements continue to wildly overplay their hand, Disney will have to decide if it is primarily about making money or advancing a certain worldview. They won’t be able to have both for very long.
In any event, as I watched Turning Red, I knew about some of these lighter complaints going in and was most ready for them. What stood out most to me, though, was how unashamedly the film pushed the be-whoever-you-want-to-be narrative. Now, to be sure, that narrative has been at the heart of scores of Disney and Pixar films over the years. It’s baked into the heart of their unofficial theme song, “When You Wish Upon a Star.” You can have anything you desire if you want it badly enough and are willing to do what it takes to get it. But what Turning Red does is to transform that “can” into a “should.” The real moral of the film seems to be that young people should pursue whoever it is they want to be without fear or any real consideration of the consequences, and parents should ultimately get out of their way so they can do it.
The final line of the whole movie is this: “Sometimes I miss how things were, but nothing stays the same forever. We’ve all got an inner beast; we’ve all got a messy, loud, weird, part of ourselves hidden away. And a lot of us never let it out. But I did. How about you?” She did indeed let it out. She let it out against the counsel and command of her parents. She lied to them. Multiple times. Her willful, selfish disobedience finally pushed her mom over the edge in her own struggles with her past (which, by the way, offered a good reminder that if you don’t work through your past before kids, having them will not make it easier, and you will probably try to work them out through your kids which will be good for exactly no one), and she lost control causing no small amount of chaos toward the end of the film. And in the end, none of Meilin’s foolish and painful decisions had any consequences for anyone including herself. In fact, the one time her mom pushed back a bit on a decision she was making right at the tail end of the movie, her response was a slightly exasperated, “Mom, my panda, my choice,” to which her mom responded by backing off and letting her do what she wanted. In other words, the whole parental relationship had been flipped on its head.
This was the problem with the film for me. I honestly am struggling to think of another Disney or Pixar film in which the ending message was more diametrically opposed to the Christian worldview than this one. Meilin is right, we do all have an inner beast. On that point, she is absolutely consistent with the Christian worldview. There is a brokenness inside of all of us that is the result of sin. The world says whoever we feel like we are on the inside is who we should be. Yet as we survey history and see the chaotic remains of times when people have let out their inner beast, the results aren’t pretty. Sin destroys. That’s what it does. It is part of its nature to destroy, and it is always fully consistent with its nature. Letting out our beast will be in the best interest of exactly no one. Not even ourselves. What we really need is to let Christ in to transform our beast into a beauty that is fully reflective of His glorious image so that we can be fully who He made us to be. Anything less than that will do more harm than good.
Turning Red wrestles with issues that all families face eventually. For that, I give them credit. But the emptiness of their worldview does not ultimately offer any solutions worth pursuing. They aren’t solutions at all, in fact. They are the harbingers of even greater, scarier problems down the road. Trusting in ourselves; doing whatever seems right to us, as the people of Israel were doing by the end of the story of Judges, and as Meilin was advocating for at the end of the film, only creates bigger messes. Following the path of Christ will lead to life.