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.)

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