It’s funny. When I first heard about Turning Red a few weeks ago, I thought it was going to be one of Pixar’s lesser films. Like Brave or Soul. Little did I know that it would turn out to be basically a remake of the 1985 Michael J. Fox vehicle, Teen Wolf.
Just so we’re clear, we’re talking about a red panda movie imitating a Fox wolf movie. If that’s too many animals to keep track of, I recommend jumping ship immediately. Because this is going to be a beast of an article. But I hope you’ll join me as we compare these two films’ messages.
Each Movie’s Message
Before we get into the details of how these two films compare, let’s first address their core message. Turning Red is a coming-of-age movie while Teen Wolf is that, plus a love story. On the surface, they’re both about a young person going through puberty. The difference in what they’re trying to say about that subject is subtle but important.
Teen Wolf’s message is: with guidance from wise parents, kids can choose the right.
Turning Red’s message is: kids know best.
Let’s see how successful these films are at conveying their respective messages.
Basketball as a Metaphor
Teen Wolf opens with a basketball game. On the court, Scott Howard struggles to keep up with his taller and stronger rival, Mick. This scene represents Scott’s fear of being average and his inability to overcome big challenges. However, we briefly see a new side to him at the end of the game when his werewolf side starts to emerge. He manages to get the ball away from Mick and then shoot it as the buzzer goes off. Unfortunately, it doesn’t go in, and it wouldn’t have won the game even if it had. His efforts to win are fruitless right now, but they won’t always be that way.
Turning Red opens with Mei’s explanation of how she balances her own needs with the needs of her family. She’s an overachiever in school. For some reason, the film shows students talking to the camera as if they’re being interviewed, but we never find out by whom or why. At the end, Mei grabs a basketball out of the air and shoots it, completely missing the basket and accidentally throwing it into the street where it gets run over. I suppose that’s to show that she’s out of balance and her attempts to subvert her own wishes will fall flat. Or it could just be a silly gag devoid of meaning.
Infatuation vs. Love
Scott is infatuated with a popular girl who is out of his league. And he ignores a nice girl named Boof who’s right in front of him because they’ve been friends since they were kids. However, by the end of the film, he realizes he’s truly in love with Boof. And he unabashedly chooses her over the popular girl in the presence of Mick.
Mei and her three friends are infatuated with a boy band called 4-Town. The other three also like a young man who works at a convenience store, but Mei doesn’t seem to think anything of him. However, one night she fantasizes about him and draws pictures of him, which get exposed in front of her bully, Tyler. This odd love story never goes anywhere, and that young man is completely forgotten by the end of the film.
After school, Scott works at his dad’s hardware shop. He begins to notice strange changes in himself there, especially when a kid blows a dog whistle. Later, Scott’s dad notes that he hasn’t been able to help at work because of his basketball and fame-seeking.
Similarly, Mei works at a temple with her mom next door to their house. She dresses like a red panda there in honor of her ancestor. Later, she deceives her mom into thinking she’s participating in a math club after school to cover her absence from the temple. She is actually busy making money with her friends.
At school, Scott runs to a restroom to run water over his face after he sees fur appearing on his hands. Mr. Thorne, the vice principal, confronts Scott about his odd behavior and warns him not to get out of line. When Scott leaves, Mr. Thorne finds a long werewolf hair in the sink.
Partway through the movie, Mei is getting ready to escape from her bedroom through her window at night when she’s interrupted by her grandmother. The old woman reveals a clump of red fur she found in the house. She warns Mei about losing herself to the beast if she transforms again.
Scott hurries home one night on a full moon. He goes into the bathroom where he suddenly transforms into a werewolf. His dad demands he open the door, and Scott reluctantly complies. He expects to shock his father, but actually it’s him who receives quite a shock. Because his dad is a werewolf, too! Scott isn’t in a mood to talk that night, so their conversation about it has to wait until the next morning. It turns out that being a werewolf runs in their family, and it sometimes skips a generation, so his dad had hoped he wouldn’t need to tell Scott about it at all.
The morning after the worst night of her life, Mei awakens in the body of a giant red panda. She tries to hide in the shower, but her mom barges into the bathroom. Before she can look at Mei behind the shower curtain, she gets distracted. This gives Mei a chance to calm down and go to school in her normal human body. However, she later learns that her mom knows all about the red panda because she used to be one, too. She hadn’t mentioned it because she thought she would catch the signs of it before Mei had to worry.
Transforming in Front of Friends
During a visit to the home of his best friend Stiles, Scott is questioned about his odd behavior. Stiles asks him if he’s a fag, which Scott flatly denies being. Then he deliberately transforms into a werewolf to show him what he’s capable of.
While struggling in isolation, Mei receives a surprise visit from her friends. She accidentally reveals her giant red panda body to them, which gives them a shock. Recovering, they ask her if she’s a werewolf, which she flatly denies being.
Strong emotions make Scott transform into a werewolf. His eyes turn red when he gets extremely angry, for example. In the heat of a basketball game, he suddenly emerges from a pile of players in his werewolf form. Then he proceeds to play an amazing game of basketball. Everyone is initially surprised by his change in appearance, but they can’t deny that he gets great results.
Strong emotions also make Mei turn into a red panda. While she’s transformed, her eyes turn red when she gets extremely angry. In the middle of a class, her mother humiliates her by offering her pads for her period. She transforms into a red panda. But before anyone can see her, she makes a hasty escape from the classroom and races home past lots of people.
Thanks to his werewolf transformation, Scott becomes the most popular kid in school. The popular girl he likes gets him to join her in a play. However, he starts to have second thoughts about relying on his ability to be a werewolf to get what he wants. Especially after a violent episode with Mick at the school dance. As a result, he tries to be his human self in the play. The play director says if he won’t be the wolf, he can’t have the role, so Scott quits.
Using her ability to transform into a red panda, Mei quickly becomes a must-see attraction at her school. She gets blackmailed into appearing at her bully Tyler’s birthday party. However, she just wants to relax as her human self after a while. When Tyler demands she become the red panda again or else he won’t pay her, she flies into a rage and then violently attacks him while transformed.
Over the course of the film, Scott expresses his insecurities to his father, who gives loving nudges in the right direction. But he never tries to force his son to make the “right” decision. Scott isn’t so sure about continuing to play basketball or go to a dance with Boof, but his father encourages him to do both.
Mei can’t tell her mother any of her concerns because as soon as she does, her mother takes over the decision making. She refuses to allow Mei to go to a 4-Town music concert, and she would never have encouraged Mei to go to Tyler’s birthday party as the red panda. But Mei does both of those things anyway.
Scott’s dad tells him that when he was a young man, Mr. Thorne was his rival for the affections of the girl who would become Scott’s mother. Mr. Thorne refused to back down, so Scott’s dad eventually turned into a werewolf to scare him off for good. It worked, but he regrets having done that out of anger.
Mei’s grandmother tells her that she and Mei’s mother used to be close until they had a quarrel, and the mother turned into a red panda and scratched her. Mei’s father tells her it was over him because the grandmother didn’t want them to date. There seems to be a lot of regret on all sides, but there’s no resolution to their differences.
After Scott’s werewolf goes public, his friend Stiles starts producing lots of merchandise to capitalize on his success. He makes plenty of money from the operation. However, this is a small plot point that doesn’t really affect the story much.
Merchandising is a huge part of Turning Red’s story, though. Mei and her friends need to make $800 to attend a 4-Town concert. They do that by selling shirts, pictures, and other paraphernalia of the red panda.
Scott spends the middle part of the film showboating his basketball skills as a werewolf, completely upstaging everyone. He even steals the ball from his own teammates. However, in the championship game, he takes his father’s advice and joins his teammates as just regular Scott. No werewolf. They’re wary of him at first, but they finally forgive him. He wants to prove that he and his teammates can defeat Mick’s team in fair competition. And they do! Scott’s dad cheers him on as he wins the game and embraces Boof over the popular girl.
After her violent encounter with Tyler at his birthday party, Mei betrays her friends and agrees to participate in a ceremony to banish the red panda. However, at the last second, she changes her mind and embraces the red panda. She then joins her friends at the 4-Town concert. Her friends are reluctant to trust her again at first, but they quickly forgive her. Going the opposite direction from Scott, Mei uses her red panda ability to fight her giant red panda mother who’s completely out of control. After she defeats her mother, she and her transformed relatives join forces to save the day. It’s her mother who has to learn to let her daughter do whatever she wants, not to follow her motherly guidance.
If anything, Turning Red seems to be a big homage to Teen Wolf. But its message is much more muddled. And the climax is entirely different and unsatisfying.
There’s never an attempt for Scott to try to cure himself. Being a werewolf is a metaphor for puberty, so there is no cure for it. It’s just a natural part of life that Scott has to learn to accept without letting it take over. I like that his dad is constantly encouraging him and standing up for him against Mr. Thorne. Sure, Scott makes mistakes, and his journey through adolescence is messy. But in the end, he learns his lesson and grows into a good young man.
The red panda seems to represent several things:
- The power to protect weaker people
- Period blood and growing up
- Unbridled emotions breaking loose
- Connection to ancestors
But none of those things feel fully realized, nor do they work in conjunction.
We never see Mei acting to defend someone with her red panda. You could argue that she’s doing that at the end, but who is she fighting? Another red panda. So why is her mother putting people in danger if that’s the opposite of her nature?
If it represents period blood and growing up, why are all of her relatives so eager to contain it so she doesn’t have to worry about it anymore? That’s not the way puberty works. And how would women who are clearly past the menopause phase be able to just access their periods again on a whim?
Mei is constantly warned about the dangers of losing herself to the red panda. But those prove to be hollow. If it represents unbridled emotions, is the lesson for her to be in control of them? To do that, she has to think of her friends. What about her family? They are mostly portrayed as controlling and unfeeling toward her. Mei’s mother constantly pushes her beyond her limits of mortification. She doesn’t really learn her lesson except to trust that her daughter knows best. But is that really what parents are for? To let their kids loose and expect them to know how best to navigate life without guidance?
Finally, the connection to Mei’s ancestor is tenuous at best. She’s a silent figure who doesn’t provide any wisdom or explanation to Mei at the end of the film. I get the sense that she approves of what Mei is doing, but there’s nothing deep or meaningful about her approval.
A Messy Movie
Teen Wolf isn’t the only movie Turning Red took inspiration from. In fact, it also had plenty of moments from other Disney and Pixar films.
Monsters, Inc. did a bathroom hiding scene better. Ralph Breaks the Internet had a superior fight with a giant villainous version of the hero at the end. Wait, that movie’s plot also hinged on the hero creating lots of silly videos of himself to make money. Brave already did the whole strained mother/daughter relationship, with equally unsatisfying results.
When I started writing this article, I had planned on just pointing out all the problems with Turning Red. But it was an annoyingly negative exercise. My wife encouraged me to rethink it, and that’s when I came up with the Teen Wolf connection. I have a lot of nostalgia for that movie since I enjoyed it as a kid. It’s certainly not a perfect film, but it comes to a better conclusion than Turning Red.
Teen Wolf does a good job of hammering home its positive message of parental love overcoming teenage angst. Turning Red never seems to know what it’s trying to say. The best it comes up with is that kids know best. In the end, Mei guides her mother out of the forest, and she gets lifted up by her ancestor. To what end? Who knows? All I know is that this is a story that’s already been told in a much better way.
This is the Deja Reviewer bidding you farewell until we meet again.
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If you’d like to support the Deja Reviewer, please consider donating a few dollars to keep this site going strong. I’ll even send you an original joke if you do! Try it, and prepare to enjoy a good chuckle.