Mother knows best: Turning Red, Encanto, and Disney/Pixar’s new overbearing moms

The familiar animation trope of the domineering dad and the (sometimes) supportive mom gets an update in recent films from the Mouse House.

A scene from "Turning Red". (Pixar)

(Note: This essay includes Turning Red spoilers.)

A decade or more ago, if the protagonist of an animated film had a disapproving, overbearing, or blinkered parental figure with overly restrictive ideas about their offspring’s life, that parent was usually the father. Domineering dads were a notable trope of the 1990s Disney renaissance, from King Triton in The Little Mermaid to Tarzan’s grumpy ape father Kerchak. Over the last couple of decades, variations on the theme ran through films from DreamWorks (Kung Fu Panda, How to Train Your Dragon), Sony Animation (Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, Hotel Transylvania), and others (Happy Feet, The Secret of Kells).

While some of these difficult dads are more benign than others, in nearly every case the father is a functional antagonist to the young hero, who must defy parental expectations or restrictions in order to find fulfillment or authenticity — often in the process saving the community, and nearly always winning the chastened father’s belated approval. Thirteen years ago I dubbed this trope “Junior Knows Best,” and it’s only accelerated since then.

As for mothers, on the comparatively rare occasions when they aren’t literally or functionally absent, they’ve often cast in mediating roles between father and offspring. Recently, though, Disney/Pixar has taken to flipping that script.

Pixar’s new Turning Red is the latest example of an increasing shift to overbearing maternal figures, from young Mirabel’s and Miguel’s domineering abuelas in Encanto and Coco to middle-aged Joe Gardner’s loving but controlling mom in Soul. Antecedents for this trend of mothers as functional antagonists include Merida’s demanding mother Queen Elinor in Brave and Tangled’s actually villainous Mother Gothel, whose showstopper “Mother Knows Best” offers an apt label for the new trend. (An ironic label, certainly, contrasting with the literalness of Junior Knows Best, but I’ll just have to live with that.)

In Turning Red, Meilin “Mei Mei” Lee (Rosalie Chang), a 13-year-old Chinese-Canadian girl living in Toronto in 2002, comes from a long line of tightly controlled and controlling maternal figures, including her tiger mom Ming (Sandra Oh) and her grandmother (Wai Ching Ho) as well as a half dozen aunts. Co-written and directed by Chinese-Canadian filmmaker Domee Shi, it’s Pixar’s first feature from a woman directing solo as well as Shi’s first feature film after the Oscar-winning short Bao (also about a problematic mother-child relationship).

Maternal perfectionism and youthful bravado

Like Queen Elinor in Brave and Abuela in Encanto, Mei’s mother Ming is a rigid perfectionist with endless expectations: a dynamic unique to these mother-daughter relationships. Overbearing fathers tend to be lawgivers with one great rule (Don’t go out on the ocean / near the surface world; monsters / humans are the enemy; etc.). Daughters with overbearing mothers, by contrast, are held to endlessly exacting standards of perfection — and those who are deemed lacking, like Mirabel, had better keep out of the way.

When Mother knows best, it’s Father who’s either absent or perhaps (as in Brave and especially Turning Red) in some way between mother and child. (In Coco, alas, both of Miguel’s parents passively enable Abuelita, tacitly supporting her ban on music and her expectation that all Riveras will be shoemakers and certainly not musicians. On the other hand, Mirabel’s parents in Encanto are more supportive, affirming her and advocating for her with Abuela. For a recent example of full-on Junior Knows Best in which both parents try to thwart the young hero’s growth while chill Grandma knows what’s up, see Pixar’s Luca.)

Turning Red, like Encanto, begins with a bit of high-spirited misdirection. In opening voiceover, Mei puts explicit qualifiers on the Fourth Commandment: Honoring your parents, she says, is her family’s No. 1 rule, but “if you honor your parents too much, you might forget to honor yourself. Fortunately,” she adds saucily, “I don’t have that problem.” Mei proceeds to introduce herself as a boisterous free spirit who follows her own path — though it’s soon apparent that behind this maverick self-image is an “overachieving dork” who is deeply invested in living up to her mother’s expectations and feels guilt and shame at every perceived failing or potential disappointment.

Not only is this a clever inversion of the standard approach of establishing up front the conflict between parental expectations and the protagonist’s desires or interests, it’s also a shrewd bit of characterization: Mei has internalized Ming’s expectations to the point that she’s convinced herself that she marches to her own unconventional drumbeat even as she does her best to dance to her mother’s demanding tune.

Mirabel likewise brings a blithe spirit to the opening of Encanto, belting out a buoyant establishing song introducing the wonders of her special family, the Madrigals, and the various magical powers given to each member. Mirabel’s love for and pride in her family are real, but the song’s celebratory tone belies her hidden pain: not so much that she, alone of her family, inexplicably wasn’t given a gift (or at least not only that) as that Abuela seems to devalue her because of it. It’s one of Encanto’s grace notes that when Mirabel bravely asserts that she’s happy as she is and is as special as any member of her family, she’s echoing the reassuring messaging from her loving parents — but if she doesn’t necessarily quite believe what she’s saying, it’s because of the messaging she gets from Abuela.

Humanizing problem parents

In Turning Red, the magic is viewed as a curse rather than a blessing, and when it strikes Mei it’s completely unexpected and unwanted. One day after Ming’s protectiveness leads to a brutal humiliation, Mei wakes up, to her horror, as a giant red panda.

Unwelcome physical transformations have become a familiar convention (see especially Brave as well as The Princess and the Frog, Soul, and Luca), but Turning Red’s riff on the trope is particularly expressive. First, obviously, it evokes the confusion and shame that often accompanies puberty: a theme made explicit by Ming, who thinks her daughter’s secretiveness and distress may denote the onset of menstruation. On the other hand, Mei’s Bruce Banner–like ability to suppress the beast and remain human by maintaining Zen-like calm suggests the pressure she feels to keep volatile emotions bottled up and hidden away — like her secret notebook with hormonally charged sketches featuring her secret crush and her favorite boy band. And when Mei learns that her strange power comes with social advantages, it’s like any young introvert discovering a hidden talent that makes them a hit at parties.

Turning Red feels in some ways like a mirror image of Brave, Pixar’s first film with a woman writer-director, Brenda Chapman (though Chapman wasn’t allowed to finish the film, which was reworked and completed by Mark Andrews). Where Chapman was inspired by her relationship with her daughter, Shi drew on her childhood relationship with her mother. Where Merida accidentally transforms her mother into a bear, Mei’s panda problem comes from her mother.

In an important way, though, Turning Red follows Encanto in developing a new spin on the Junior/Mother Knows Best trope: In these cartoons, for the first time, the roots of the maternal figure’s rigidity in her own youthful struggles or trauma are explored, and rapprochement between mother and daughter turns on the daughter empathizing with the mother’s experiences and coming to see her as someone not so different from herself. This approach to humanizing the overbearing parental figure hasn’t been seen before — not even in Brave (as relatable as Elinor is, we learn nothing about her background) or in Coco (where the trauma is not Abuelita’s, but two generations prior, and the emotional climax turns on connecting emotionally with Miguel’s great-grandmother).

Turning Red goes beyond Encanto and earlier films, moreover, in suggesting that every generation struggles with the baggage of previous generations, and too often winds up passing it on to the next generation — a cycle that can be broken through mutual understanding between generations. (Coco acknowledges that baggage is passed down, but Abuelita never struggles with it, nor for that matter does Miguel, who never internalized it in the first place.) Encanto’s characters are thinly drawn and its conflict is overly schematic; its emotional power resides significantly in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s lyrical virtuosity and musical flair. Turning Red is more conventional conceptually and visually (Casita, the Madrigals’ anthropomorphic house, might be Disney’s most memorable mute sidekick, and as a setting ranks close behind the Beast’s enchanted castle), but its characters and emotions are richer and messier.

Spiritual and emotional frankness

Turning Red also richer and messier spiritually, which is a mixed bag. Encanto, like Coco and Luca, has the thinnest possible patina of Catholicism (with a village priest among the crowd of minor characters). Instead of referring to magic, Abuela talks constantly of the family’s “miracle,” a secularized reference to the paranormal MacGuffin: an undying candle somehow imbued with supernatural power in Abuela’s youth by the sacrificial death of her young husband at the hands of unspecified marauders. The candle is somehow the source of the specialness of the house and its inhabitants; it’s also the ambiguous focus of prayer-like moments. (In one scene Mirabel could be praying to the heavens or to the power of the candle. In another, Abuela seems to address the spirit of her husband in or through the candle.)

The franker spirituality in Turning Red includes elements of Confucianism and Wuism. The Lee family’s ancestral temple (the oldest such temple in Toronto, we’re told) is both a public attraction and a house of prayer. “Instead of honoring a god,” we’re told, “we honor our ancestors.” Yet their most revered ancestor prayed to gods in a time of war and became the “guardian of the red panda,” with panda power that’s been passed down to Mei. (Another point of contact: As in Encanto, the supernatural element goes back to a time of mass violence. This time, though, behind the “miracle” is an identifiable power.) In recent generations, the women of the family all take part in a coming-of-age ritual, overseen by a “shaman,” in which their inner red panda is exorcised. In an extended visionary sequence reminiscent of the ancestral-plane sequences in Black Panther, Mei apparently encounters her great ancestor, the original “guardian of the red panda.”

Compared to prior Disney/Pixar films, Turning Red is also franker about the emotional as well as the physical side of adolescence and puberty (a topic that’s mostly been the subject of glancing, adult-oriented jokes in movies like Inside Out). There’s nothing new about Mei’s crush on a convenience-store clerk or her boy-band obsession, but the childish, swoony drawings in her notebook are like a field guide to her soul: muscular male torsos and soulful, anime-influenced portraits of herself and her crush, often blended with fantasy elements (e.g., her crush appearing as a merman or a centaur).

Mei’s burning shame when Ming discovers the notebook, to say nothing of what she does with it, carries the universal sting of everyone’s most humiliating middle-school memory. For that matter, so does another scene involving sanitary pads (surely another first for Hollywood animation, along with the twerking). While Ming’s extreme behavior (e.g., stalking Mei at school) is sometimes over the top, its effect on Mei feels emotionally honest and true to life. It’s also worth noting that Mei’s father Jin (Orion Lee) plays a quietly supportive role in his daughter’s life, not unlike Mirabel’s parents. (Jin also cooks.)

While the Junior Knows Best trope shows no sign of fading, the recurring inclusion of positive parental figures, along with increasing empathy for even overbearing parents and exploration of the life experiences that shape their attitudes and behavior, are welcome developments. And, in an odd way, switching up the familiar parental overbearing/understanding roles can have humanizing implications for both fathers and mothers. Moms, like dads, are only human, and dads are, in a different sense, no less human than moms.


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About Steven D. Greydanus 26 Articles
Steven D. Greydanus is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle, a permanent deacon in the Catholic Archdiocese of Newark, and the founder of DecentFilms.com. He has degrees in media arts and religious studies. He and his wife Suzanne have seven children.

11 Comments

  1. Why is it when it comes to the culture industry, Catholics always have to “settle?” At a certain point accommodation begins to look like capitulation. The personal question continues to arise. Why am I still a Catholic?

    • I don’t understand your first question, Graham. Your second question is infinitely more important, but allow me to address your first question first.

      No one “has to” watch any movies or TV at all. No one has to “settle” for, “accommodate,” or “capitulate to” anything in this area. I enjoy what I think are good movies and so do many people, but a person who avoids all movies and TV has, to that extent, done nothing wrong.

      Having said that, I’m not sure why you raise this question here, because I haven’t proposed “settling” for anything. I am observing trends in Disney/Pixar animation, a powerful force in our culture. I haven’t necessarily recommended either of the movies I focused on here. I’ve said there are positive signs in the development of a trend.

      Beyond that, though, let’s be clear that there is nothing intrinsically wrong with stories about overbearing mothers or fathers. Great literature is full of bad parents, for a very simple reason: Bad parents exist. Art reflects life. In the case of Turning Red, the co-writer/director is drawing on her own experiences growing up Chinese-Canadian in Toronto. (My concern about what I’ve dubbed the Junior Knows Best trope is not its presence in any one movie, but the pattern repeated in so many films.)

      As for why you are still Catholic — I hope you are Catholic because you believe that God has revealed himself to the world in Jesus, who brought redemption to humanity and who founded his church on St. Peter, and that the church of Christ subsists in the Catholic Church led by the pope who is Peter’s successor and those bishops in communion with him. That’s the reason I’m Catholic, and the reason everyone should be Catholic.

  2. I don’t think that Encanto’s conflict was schematic or simple. There is a big difference between nuanced and simple. The characters held representation for generational trauma along with the roles different children play in a abusive household. Black sheep, mediator, perfectionist. Just because the messaging isn’t in your face through monologue like turning red doesn’t mean it’s not there. I liked turning red but felt sometimes the comedy needed to be toned down during big impactful moments.

  3. One of the problems with movies, especially for kids, is that more and more of the occult is being weaved into the story. It doesn’t matter that this animated movie is based on a 13-year-old Chinese-Canadian girl coming of age. The film involves calling on the dead, numerology, and rituals that point to the occult. You mention this in your article, barely. This is a big deal if you’re a Christian and understand that what is on display in this movie is dangerous to our salvation.

    • I’ve written about occult themes and non-Christian religious elements in family films for decades, from the New-Agey elements in Disney’s Atlantis: The Lost Empire to the animist themes in Spirited Away and other Hayao Miyazaki films and the mixed portrayals of witchcraft in the Laika films ParaNorman and Kubo and the Two Strings.

      I can’t say I’ve noticed “more and more” of this over time; if anything, Disney in particular has become more constitutionally secular over the last decade or two, and the elements of Confucianism and Wuism in Turning Red are an outlier.

      I can’t say I think that a story about a Chinese-Canadian family with an ancestral shrine and a hereditary condition passed down among the women of the family imbuing them with red-panda alter egos that can be exorcised and contained by means of a Wu-esque ritual is likely to be dangerous to the souls of well-catechized Catholic teenagers or adults.

      Many kinds of stories widely enjoyed by Christians require us to imaginatively accept religious counterfactuals, from tales from ancient mythology (Greco-Roman, Norse, etc.) to The Chronicles of Narnia.

      In the past, when I watched Miyazaki’s gentle, lovely My Neighbor Totoro with very young children, when we came to the scene where Mei and Satsuke’s father gives his respects to the King of the Forest, the Totoro spirit living in the great camphor tree, in what amounts to a prayer, I would say to my young children, “Now of course we Catholics do not pray to trees! But in the world of this story a great being lives in that tree—a being that, if he were real, would be created by God—and Mr. Kusakabe is being polite and respectful.” None of my children have shown any tendency over the years to pray to trees, or to anything or anyone but God, the Virgin Mary, and the saints and angels.

      I personally doubt that Catholic children who watch Turning Red would be much more likely to turn into Confucianists as a result than they would be to turn into giant red pandas. But I understand that parents have different sensibilities on this topic, which is why I provided the information for parents to make up their own minds.

  4. Interesting analysis. C. S. Lewis pointed out that fathers are better mediators than mothers, though their proper role in that capacity is more between their families and others. This has the father having to mediate between the mother and children, which I suppose is a good thing if needed, but it’s unfortunate that it’s needed at all. Though it sounds in your review like the fathers are much more passive and packed away while the mothers are the real leaders, which is a massive misstep probably influenced by feminism.

    While by themselves the transformation and fantasy drawings of the crush might not be so bad, to me this seems like the unhealthy “furry” culture (that probably no artist these days can miss seeing, if only by accident) bubbling up into the mainstream. The fact that this transformation is “cute” and portrayed as having some real bonuses doesn’t help. Why be normal again? As Jonathan Pageau said in a video on symbolism (on the Babylon Bee podcast, I think), today the entire world is a carnival with everything topsy-turvy, traditional roles undetermined or flipped, strange creatures all around, etc. It is healthy to briefly go to the carnival, but staying there permanently (what many people seem to want to do) is not.

    (In fairness, not wanting to give to the progressives at the House of Mouse, I haven’t seen this, or many other recent movies or TV, so it is *possible* that Turning Red figures out a way to _convincingly_ part the protagonist from her secondary form.)

    I think that first comment, about Catholics “settling,” had to do with the fact that this was far from a thorough review (I know this wasn’t supposed to be) and therefore didn’t analyze and come down hard on the problematic elements.

    I look forward to a much more thorough review. (I also hope I’m not the only one getting tired of Pixar’s current art direction, which seems overly cartoony and “CalArts”–see that round head and annoying “jellybean grin” for instance–lately).

    • I should perhaps add that if one always draws idealized or fantasy images of one’s crush, that can be quite unhealthy too because it can develop unrealistically high expectations, or even worse, train the desires on something that doesn’t exist.

  5. Doesn’t the movie end with a line of dialogue referencing a pro-abortion slogan? Even if it’s intended to be a form of wordplay, it’s hard to imagine it being innocent in nature.

  6. What if the story was an allegory of say, a conservative influencer to the society(church or Christianity), portrayed by the mom, and the sexualized world, portrayed by the daughter. When mom finally went to correct her with her greater authority and power(godzilla panda), she just twerked it off! And it worked! Mom now lets her be, and mom even kept shut when cried to with “my panda, my choice!” line.

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  1. Turning Red (2022): Cast, Trailer, Critic Reviews and Photos - Magarila
  2. Tidbits – March 2022 | Reformed Perspective

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