Monstrous Liberty: Wolfwalkers and Turning Red

Part II: Turning Red

Wolfwalkers might best be described as historical fantasy, as it’s set in mid-17th century Ireland and features an actual figure from history as its villain, “Lord Protector” Oliver Cromwell. Yet when the scene shifts from Kilkenny to the forest, it takes a turn toward the mythic, something that might exist beyond the bounds of time. In short, this movie hits my sweet spot precisely. It’s one of those movies that seems to have been designed specifically to appeal to me. So the minute it became available to watch on AppleTV, my husband and I watched it.

By contrast, Pixar’s latest feature, Turning Red, had been streaming on Disney+ for over a month before we finally decided to view it. This one falls under urban fantasy, not my favorite subgenre. Previously, Pixar had been getting past my dislike of contemporary or close-to-contemporary settings by featuring nonhuman characters, and I wasn’t sure I could fall in love with a human-centered fantasy tale set in the year 2002. Criticisms of the movie as “unrelatable” due to its nonwhite girl protagonist and Toronto place setting won my support, but what finally got me to sit down in front of the television for it was seeing a clip of protagonist Meilin Lee playing the flute like an absolute boss. Girls playing instruments is an instant sell for me, and the flute happens to have been my own instrument back when I played with my middle-school band and aspired to musical greatness. This told me right away that Mei, despite short-sighted reviewers’ calling her “unrelatable” and even (gasp) “unlikable” would be a girl after my own heart. That instinct proved correct.

The most common “I’m not a misogynist, but–” criticisms I’ve heard leveled against the film were Mei’s obnoxiousness (the word “cringe” has been thrown around a lot) and the supposedly “bean-mouth” art style. Those who carped on these grounds clearly have different standards from mine. The first word that comes to my mind when I think of Turning Red is adorable. Mei, striding down the sidewalk towards the bus stop with her backpack strapped to her shoulders and her flute clutched tightly in her fist, exuding youthful confidence with every step, pausing to turn a spontaneous cartwheel without bothering to remove her backpack, is by far the most button-cute animated heroine I’ve seen besides Wolfwalkers‘ Mebh. The stickers on the flute, especially the one proclaiming “This Girl Loves Math,” complete the picture of a funny, whip-smart girl who doesn’t know she has rough seas ahead of her. I wanted to hug her and pray for her and maybe offer a word or two of assurance as someone who has been right where she was. (My own flute sticker would have read “This Girl Loves Theatre,” with the “re” spelling we theater nerds — excuse me, theatre nerds — tend to prefer.)

In Turning Red, as in Wolfwalkers, growing up comes with a transmogrification, but whereas Robyn’s wolf form is a fairly unambiguous symbol of freedom from the get-go, Mei’s red panda form is a metaphor for what feminist poet Marge Piercy calls “the magic of puberty” (not menstruation, as some have claimed), a time of swift, confusing, and frightening changes. Robyn, after an initial stab of fear, comes to appreciate her wolf form quickly, thanks to guidance from Mebh. For Mei, however, the red panda is a curse to be controlled and then banished, and her arc centers on her coming to terms with it and deciding what it means to her. The panda is Change itself, the beast all of us must confront when we grow up, and it’s fitting that it emerges in moments of intense emotion. First, Mei must figure out how to control it. Then, she can own it. Once she has come to see it as a valuable part of herself, she flies across the rooftops of Toronto, shifting joyously from one form to the other, in a sequence reminiscent of Robyn’s first run through the forest in her wolf shape. All that’s missing is a beautiful song on the soundtrack.

The core difference between Wolfwalkers and Turning Red is the absence in the latter film of a clear and hate-worthy villain, a “Lord Protector” who embodies the oppressive constraints the monster heroine is pushing against. A film like Wolfwalkers, part history and part myth, benefits from the presence of an identifiable villain, one with too much unshakable faith in his own righteousness to be within reach of redemption. But Turning Red, like Encanto before it, represents Disney-Pixar’s move away from traditional hero/villain narratives and towards stories in which flawed but basically decent people with good intentions come into conflict, and pure evil is less a threat than our own unwillingness to listen to each other. Ming, Mei’s mother, loves her daughter deeply and would never consciously hurt her, but she has her own firmly fixed idea of who Mei is and will become (“Today, honor student; tomorrow, UN Secretary-General!”), and she closes her ears to anything that might challenge this idea. Mei is pushing toward freedom, not from institutionalized misogyny but from the image her mother has shaped of her, which may or may not reflect who she really is. Mei’s eventual choice of what to do about her red panda is an assertion of self-determination.

Yet a core similarity between the films, which sets them both apart from Margaret Atwood’s melancholy “Lusus Naturae,” is that the heroines’ monstrous sides don’t isolate them from others. Before becoming a wolfwalker, Robyn is alone except for her father, despised and mocked by the other children in Kilkenny; her wolf side leads her to a friend, a peer, and a place where she can belong without sacrificing her true self. Mei has a strong circle of friends at the outset of her story, and their choice to stick close to her after they discover her in panda form gives her the power to calm the turmoil that sparks the transformation. Friendship is central to, and is celebrated in, both narratives — something we see entirely too rarely in animated features that star female protagonists.

In my ongoing struggle to understand why I don’t share pop culture’s enthusiasm for female villains, I keep coming back to one point: no matter how powerful they might be, they almost always lose. And as things go from bad to worse for women in the real world, I need more and more to see girls winning. When misogyny makes the news, I can find some glimmer of comfort in the image of two beautiful wolves racing side by side through a mystical forest and an adorable red panda soaring through the night sky, enjoying their monstrous liberty. Most of all, I can find joy and hope in knowing that generations of young people now have these stories to grow up with.

(I do have one word to say to Mei: I know that you’re figuring out who you are, and at thirteen you’re still young enough to explore a myriad of passions before you settle on a path — but please, whatever you do, don’t give up your flute. You’ll regret it if you do. I know. I’ve been there.)

Monstrous Liberty: Wolfwalkers and Turning Red

Part 1: Wolfwalkers

In my daily prayers I habitually give thanks for the different kinds of stories in my life: those I read, those I write, those I watch, and those I teach.

One short story I’ve begun to include in my Freshman Composition II class is Margaret Atwood’s “Lusus Naturae.” As someone with an affinity for tales of monster heroines, I couldn’t help but be intrigued by a narrator who suffers from a condition that gives her the characteristics of a vampire/werewolf hybrid. The story opens with her looking on and listening as her family discusses her as a problem in need of a solution, but when they finally decide to hold a fake funeral for her so they can rejoin society while she remains in seclusion, she discovers she actually likes the change: “Now that I was dead, I was freer.” Without social constraints, the titular “lusus naturae” (freak of nature) thrives and can shape her environment to suit her needs and desires. Her story at this point reminds me why I’m so drawn to the female monster; when “normal” society limits women to a narrow field of roles and acceptable behaviors, monster heroines can leap over the fences.

Yet in most monster narratives, society and its rules emerge triumphant, and Atwood’s story has her heroine give into her human nature — the longing for kinship endemic to the social animal — and step outside the isolation that has kept her safe and free. Observing a couple in the throes of sexual excitement, she mistakes them for “beings like myself” and later touches the man, who predictably reacts in horror. At the story’s close, she awaits the approach of an angry mob that includes her “normal” older sister, and contemplates the possibility of an afterlife where she is the norm: “Perhaps the angels will look like me. What a surprise that will be for everyone else!”

The mob marching on the lusus naturae’s habitat intent on doing away with her evokes images of such mobs striding down the streets of Universal Studios’ backlot in their iconic horror films of the 1930s and 1940s. It reminds us that despite the ambiguous conclusion of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, in which literature’s most famous monster exiles himself to the arctic wilds, traditional stories generally end in death for the monster. Frankenstein’s monster may achieve a Pyrrhic victory in the novel, but in the classic film adaptations he’s repeatedly disposed of (by fire, by explosion, by sulfur pit, etc.). Blood-hungry Dracula, lovelorn Imhotep, anarchic invisible Jack Griffin, and wolf-men Wilfred Glendon and Laurence Talbot all meet untimely ends, and thus the chaos they represent is neutralized and the status quo maintained. Where Atwood’s lusus naturae differs isn’t so much that she is painted sympathetically — after all, both wild, woeful Laurence Talbot and Frankenstein’s monster as played by Boris Karloff earn quite a bit of audience sympathy as they journey toward their predestined ends — as that she is female, and therefore even further outside the lines society draws.

Recent decades have seen writers of genre fiction move away from the traditional model, to expand the monster’s possible fates beyond permanent exile or death. In the realm of fantasy fiction, vampires, werewolves, and even zombies can be romantic interests, knights in cobwebbed armor who shamble to the rescue of innumerable generic high school girls. Dragons can be heroic warriors and the allies of human soldiers. But there is still one thing the sympathetic monster must nearly always be: male. Female monsters, 95% of the time, are painted as evil, a problem that can only be solved by slaying. In the majority of monster tales, as in the majority of superhero tales, girls and women still represent normalcy, the comfortable ordinariness for which male monsters (and male superheroes) presumably yearn. Beauty tames the Beast. All well and good; I enjoy a well-told Beauty-and-the-Beast tale. But my heart still yearns after the monster heroine, the female Chaotic Good, and I write her because she is so hard to find.

So when I do stumble onto exceptions to the general rule, I treasure them. Over the past couple of years I’ve had the pleasure of seeing two animated films in which young heroines find a kind of freedom in monsterhood, but unlike the lusus naturae, they lose neither their liberty nor their lives: Cartoon Saloon’s Wolfwalkers (2020) and Pixar’s Turning Red (2022).

In its opening sequence, Wolfwalkers presents us with a different take on the werewolf than we’re used to seeing. Not driven to kill, the wolfwalkers — humans by day, then wolves by night as their human bodies sleep — are protectors of the ancient forest near Kilkenny circa 1650, and all the creatures who live there, especially the pack of ordinary wolves with whom they are spiritually linked. They’re dangerous to humans only so far as humans threaten the forest. The first scene shows the wolf pack attack a pair of woodcutters before they can fell a tree. Yet when one of them is injured, the wolfwalkers, Moll and her young daughter Mebh, emerge from the rear of the pack to heal him with their magic. He returns to Kilkenny a wiser man. Yet the town is locked in a state of fearful ignorance that will take more than one simple healing to cure. The people there view the wolves as evil creatures to be destroyed — none more so than Robyn Goodfellowe, daughter of a soldier under orders to hunt the wolves to extinction.

Robyn, in her first appearance, fires a crossbow at an image of a wolf tacked to the wall, yet she nonetheless wins sympathy pretty quickly. We’re touched by her warm relationship with her father, Bill, and we can identify with her chafing against the boundaries prescribed by her age and gender. She hates being stuck behind the town’s walls and wants nothing more than to hunt alongside her father in the forest. What she wants most is freedom. All her instincts tell her that she belongs to the forest, not to the town. Once Robyn, sneaking into the forest against her father’s orders, learns the truth about the wolves and wolfwalkers for herself, she discards her old prejudices and bonds with the young wolfwalker girl, Mebh. She represents the hope that humans can learn better, that understanding might triumph over ignorance. But bigotry — here taking the form of the evil Lord Protector, whose orders Bill is bound to follow — isn’t going down without a fight.

Her friendship with Mebh gives Robyn a taste of the freedom she’s been craving, a look at life beyond the rigid confines of the town. Yet in an initial scuffle, Mebh nips her, and though she heals the wound, it proves too late to prevent the spell from taking effect: when night comes, Robyn learns she has become a wolfwalker herself, and in her newly minted wolf form she barely manages to escape from town with her life. She has become lusus naturae, something not merely unwilling but unable to fit within Kilkenny’s social mores. Understandably terrified, she bolts into the forest to find Mebh, and in perhaps the film’s most beautiful and stirring sequence, Mebh teaches her the advantages her wolf form gives her. Freedom is Robyn’s at last, as long as she runs with the wolves.

“Being a wolf is way better,” Mebh tells Robyn, and the film’s very color scheme — lush greens and blues and earthy browns for the forest and dull, flat grays for the town — makes us feel the truth of this and root for Robyn’s ultimate escape from stifling civilization. As a human, she must abide by the Lord Protector’s notions of what is “appropriate” for girls, which means working in a scullery and remaining meek, quiet, and subservient. (“I already am in a cage!” she cries when her father warns her of what might happen if she remains defiant.) As a wolf, she can run and leap and, with her heightened senses, experience the world as she’s never known it before. She also has something Atwood’s lusus naturae never finds: a friend, a being like herself. Robyn’s flight from civilization takes her not into isolated exile, but into a new and more nurturing community.

How she manages this, and how the final battle between understanding and bigotry plays out, I won’t Spoil in further detail. Please, if you haven’t seen it, seek it out and discover it for yourself.