Seeing Red After ‘Turning Red’

It has been quite the descent for Disney.

‘Turning Red’ is not for children.
‘Turning Red’ is not for children. (photo: Disney/Pixar)

If we sometimes think we’re too readily offended by things in popular culture, it may not be due to being overly sensitive, but rather caused by a bull market of things popular culture does that are truly offensive.

There used to a be a “safe place” in popular culture where we didn’t have to worry about the wrong “message” being delivered to the minors entrusted to our care. It was called the Walt Disney Co. It was a land where the aim was to send you to a magical place via television, movies or theme parks where you could leave the real world outside and have an experience you enjoyed once as a child and then again through the eyes of your own children and grandchildren.  

Things change. This is not your grandfather’s Walt Disney, it is not your father’s Walt Disney … and if you are a person who subscribes to the basic tenets of the Catholic faith, it isn’t your company, regardless of your parental status. We can no longer fool ourselves that this company, a product of one man’s passion, one man’s creative force and one man’s vision, still represents what is good, beautiful and true. 

It has been quite the descent, from the grandfatherly Disney coming into our living rooms on Sunday evenings for The Wonderful World of Disney television show to the mutiny of employees and executives resisting a law that simply recognizes the primacy of a parent’s God-given right to guard their child’s well-being. 

The Disney products of yore did not question a parent’s right or a child’s place in God’s universe. That model has been discarded by this company by the actions of its representatives in the Florida-law issue and in the content the company now produces that is not in tune with a God-centered view of that same universe.

Just watch one of Disney’s most current animated efforts, Turning Red

I’ve watched this film one and a half times. My 3-year-old grandson was all in: It has a girl who turns into a giant red panda, after all. My grandson and I were just settling in on the couch with a juice box and some crackers when we watched the protagonist, an energetic Asian American girl, helping her mother at the temple they maintain in their hometown. So far, so good — until the mother tells a group of tourists, “We do not pray to a god, but to ancestors.” It was practically a throwaway line. I distracted my grandson with some Warner Bros. cartoons of the 1950s, and that was that for Turning Red

Now, I never did seek or require that 101 Dalmatians, Sleeping Beauty or Pinocchio contain minimum amounts of Thomistic theological ruminations, but I do insist that my belief, and the faith I am attempting to pass on to my 3-year-old grandson, not be so casually cast aside by an animated character in a movie aimed at children. 

A day or two later, I returned to Turning Red, on my own this time, just to make sure I wasn’t being hypersensitive about that one line and to determine if maybe the film had more to offer.

It did have more to offer — and it was worse. 

As I watched, it became clear that the title was a not-so-veiled reference to the menstrual cycle and how the onset of that in a young girl’s life can be traumatic and full of emotion for daughters and parents. And there I was, watching a Disney cartoon about the menstrual cycle and all the hormonal chaos that time of life brings with it. There is a brief subplot about our heroine and her girlfriends fantasying over a 17-year-old who works in a mini-mart. That was just creepy.  

The rest of the film is a mix of typical Disney/Pixar plot complications, magic and a big showy conclusion where we all learn a lesson. But I could not help but wonder, what audience was this film aimed at? Do 12- to 13-year-old girls watch cartoons like this? I got the distinct and uneasy feeling the audience for this film is a lot younger. 

The culture we inhabit is so intent on ripping children out of a garden of innocence as soon as possible in the name of a greater secular awakening. Disney is leading the charge, when it used to be the guardian of innocence. It’s corporate child abuse, in my opinion.  

I fully realize and am willing to stipulate that film, even of the animated variety, can deliver clever metaphors and artful insights into our shared experience. The classic Disney film Bambi had a very clear message of growing up and the change of life, even though cartoon animals going through puberty was a little unsettling. The message was not a sexual one in Bambi, like it is in Turning Red. In Bambi, it’s about the carefree innocence of childhood giving way inevitably to the more complicated ramifications of approaching adulthood. In Turning Red, it’s all about the hormones. 

And as artful as Bambi is, Turning Red has no nuance and subtlety. Its crassness metaphorically grabs children by the ears and pulls them into another phase of life they are neither equipped for nor interested in.

And this begs the question: Who is interested in showing a movie with this message to 3-, 4- and 5-year-olds? The use of the giant red panda, which captured my 3-year-old’s interest, made me think of a stranger in a city park offering a child some candy.  

Turning Red is the ultimate bait-and-switch. And it should have any parent or grandparent with their little one’s best interest at heart seeing red.

Robert Brennan writes from Los Angeles.