The Post-villain Era of Animation

Today’s Disney movies aren’t like the ones you grew up with. That isn’t a bad thing.

Meilin Lee and friends in "Turning Red"
Pixar / Disney / Charlie Le Maignan / The Atlantic

Few characters are as strikingly memorable as a classic Disney villain. Sleeping Beauty’s haughty sorceress, Maleficent; The Little Mermaid’s operatically campy sea witch, Ursula; The Lion King’s melodramatically evil Scar—each one so charismatic they tend to obscure their movie’s protagonist. (Quick: What is the princess’s name in Sleeping Beauty?)

But despite their prominence in classic films, animated villains have slowly disappeared from screens over the past decade. Recent movies such as Turning Red and Encanto certainly have drama, though instead of defeating a cackling evildoer, the main character now typically has an internal battle made external. The conflict in both films involves a broken relationship with a loved one, made cinematically epic by way of magical metaphor. Turning Red, like The Little Mermaid before it, arrives at its climax with the antagonist blown up to kaiju proportions. But while the 1989 Disney movie ends with behemoth Ursula skewered on a ship, the 2022 Pixar film finds its dramatic peak in a quieter moment of mother-daughter understanding.

Animation didn’t do away with villains all at once. Early iterations in the trend, such as Frozen, had classically good-and-evil setups, but subverted them as the films went on. And with Moana and later films, children’s animation shed predictable tropes of hero/villain plotlines while also centering cultures that don’t have much representation in the depths of the Disney vault.

Turning Red is the latest and certainly among the most culturally specific animated works. While films such as Raya and the Last Dragon create fantasy-pastiches of cultural context, Turning Red follows a real 13-year-old Chinese Canadian girl living in Toronto in 2002—who just happens to turn into a giant red panda sometimes.

Spencer Kornhaber, Shirley Li, and Lenika Cruz discuss Turning Red and the state of the animated villain on an episode of The Atlantic’s culture podcast, The Review. Listen to their conversation here:

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The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity. It contains spoilers for Turning Red.

Spencer Kornhaber: This week, we’re talking about Turning Red, the latest Disney/Pixar release. It’s been out for a while, debuting on Disney+ about a month ago, but we wanted to talk about it because, well, there’s been some discourse around the movie. It’s had an odd kind of staying power. It’s doing well in the streaming numbers. And also, I think we all kind of love it and want to just fawn over it. It’s really a remarkably specific animated film. It’s about a Chinese Canadian 13-year-old girl living in Toronto in 2002.

All Meilin Lee wants to do is hang out with her friends, go to a boy-band concert, and, most importantly, make her somewhat overprotective mother proud. Then one day she wakes up and she finds out that she turns into a giant adorable red panda whenever she loses control of her emotions. As director Domee Shi put it: “The panda is a metaphor for magical puberty.” Shirley, what did you think of Turning Red?

Shirley Li: I love this movie. It is absolutely a film about magical puberty, but it’s about many other things, too. The first time I watched it, I was surprised by how wonderfully it pulled off all these different elements. One is the coming-of-age puberty element. Another is the specificity of a Chinese Canadian 13-year-old and what her life is like. And there’s also the element of dealing with parents.

I walked away from this film really impressed by how well it juggled all of it. I went in incredibly stoked for Domee Shi. This film is her debut, and it makes her the first woman to direct a Pixar feature. She’s also the first woman to direct a Pixar short: her Oscar-winning film Bao, which played in theaters before Incredibles 2.

Kornhaber: It’s about an edible dumpling child, right?

Li: It is about a steamed bun that becomes an anthropomorphized child to this mom who’s suffering from empty-nest syndrome. As a director, Shi has really quirky ideas and draws from a lot of different animation styles. I was really excited to see what her first feature film would look like, and when I saw the animation for the lead character, I got really worried because she looked exactly like me. (Laughs.)

Lenika Cruz: (Laughs.)

Li: And she’s obsessed with pop culture, or an element of it. And it really felt like, maybe in all these years of asking to be seen on-screen, maybe things went too far. And here is this embarrassing rendition of who I am. (Laughs.)

Cruz: Really embarrassing for you. (Laughs.)

Li: Anyway, that’s where I was coming from with this film. And I could gush all day about Domee Shi. I think she’s such a genius. She is fearless about creating a fearless character with unabashed primal energy in this teenage girl, and pulling from all these different visual styles. It’s pushing what a Pixar film is.

Cruz: I, too, love this movie. It’s super funny. It’s sweet. It gets at the emotional realities of being a 13-year-old girl. When I heard that it was going to be set in 2002, I was like, Oh no, this is going to tap into a time in my life when I was just so earnest and embarrassing. But at the same time, I feel like, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve become less embarrassed of myself at that age. This movie made me think a lot of PEN15, which I know some of us are big fans of, not just because of the cringey, embarrassing element, but also because, while it’s funny, it doesn’t make fun of what it’s like to be that age and be so full of excitement and uncertainty and enthusiasm.

It gets at the psychological depth of kids at that age. And so I liked that this was a film that wasn’t at all making fun of teenage girls or the things they love. And, Shirley, I actually hadn’t seen Bao when it first played, but I watched it in between my first and second viewings of Turning Red. And even though I knew I knew what would happen, I was still in tears by the end. And you do notice the similar themes to this movie, where you have this mother character who clearly really loves her child and wants to spend all her time with them, but once the child starts breaking off to go on their own, the protective instinct turns dangerous. There’s an edge to it, where the mother wants to do anything to keep her child close, even if that means maybe hurting them.

Kornhaber: This is a movie that is so, so funny and so charming, because it’s about being extra. It’s about going into the red in all these different ways. I was so taken with it from that very first stretch of narration, where the voice actress who plays Meilin, Rosalie Chiang, is basically shouting her lines. (Laughs.)

She monologues in this kind of stentorian “I am a 13-year-old, but I am basically an adult and this is what I like, and this is what I don’t like.” And my reaction was: I know this girl. I recognize that she’s not an adult. She’s a child, because she is able to express herself and is completely authentic in this over-the-top way. Because what is childhood other than an escalating experience of becoming more and more playful and imaginative … and then running into this wall of puberty where other people start to notice you as an autonomous creature in the world and start to make you feel embarrassed about who you are?

And, in this movie, there’s also this other layer of that brought by the parents, who have their own experiences in life that caused them to get across this idea that you need to watch yourself, to quiet down, and to be careful about how you present to the world. But unfortunately, there’s a family curse that turns you into a gigantic red panda if you aren’t able to control your emotions. And there’s also a magic ritual to turn you into less of who you really are.

The other thing I love about this movie is that it’s completely unpredictable to me. I did not feel prepared for every story beat in the way I’m used to with movies where a villain is defeated. And it does feel like we’re in this moment where children’s animation at least is really far away from the movies that we grew up with.

Li: Yeah, Disney+ released a documentary called Embrace the Panda about the making of Turning Red. And in it, Domee Shi talks about how she didn’t necessarily start with the idea to make a movie about a Chinese Canadian 13-year-old, or to make a movie about dealing with an overprotective mother, or anything like that. She started with just thinking that red pandas were cute and wanting to illustrate them.

And as she learned about red pandas, she learned that they’re quite individualistic, that they eat bamboo even though it doesn’t provide nutrients for them. So she imagined them like a lazy teenager eating chips and sleeping all day. And so she applied a story to it, and found red pandas to be a good metaphor for something she wanted to explore more of. And maybe that’s why the film has its own sense of discovery. She didn’t approach it with a story in mind. She didn’t begin with a heroine and a villain. She just started with the fact that red pandas are really cute, and she wanted to draw them! But this film does fit into a recent spate of Pixar films where there isn’t really a tangible villain: Encanto, Raya and the Last Dragon, Frozen II.

Cruz: Yeah, even a movie like Moana has a plot that’s harder to predict, because there wasn’t an obvious antagonist. Moana wants to save her island. In Encanto, they want to save the house. And then in Turning Red, she wants to go to a concert, but still make her mom happy as this obedient daughter.

And I guess we should set up how the panda is first triggered, because the mom doesn’t expect it and doesn’t prepare her for it. Meilin basically sees a cute boy one day and, after denying to herself that she thinks he’s cute, she finds herself at her desk absentmindedly doodling pictures of him. She gives him biceps and a cute smile, and suddenly she finds herself drawing these sexy drawings of her crush. And then her mom finds the drawings and doesn’t once think that her daughter might actually be enjoying them. She assumes her daughter is being victimized in some way and goes off to embarrass her by confronting the boy. It’s the most embarrassing scene ever.

Kornhaber: Even hearing you describe it hurts.

Li: I’m sweating, just hearing this. (Laughs.)

Cruz: I know! She draws him as a merman. It’s like everyone’s worst nightmare, no matter how old you are. But then, that night, she goes home and tells herself to push all of this down and not disappoint her mother again. She starts berating herself in the mirror. And this is one of the first moments where she’s aware of these desires being stigmatized, something she needs to control and contain and bury. And she wakes up the next morning, and—poof—she is the cutest, biggest, fluffiest red panda. And that’s kind of where the trouble begins.

But what I was surprised by was: In a lot of transformation stories, the fact of the transformation itself is a problem that lasts for most of the film, and I was shocked by how quickly it went from being a secret to being something that she just kind of went with. She’s making money at school taking pictures with people. It goes from being embarrassing to being celebrated so quickly. And I really liked that. If turning into a red panda is a metaphor for puberty and growing up, the movie didn’t treat it as something that the entire world looked at as bad. It was mainly her mother’s idea of how she should be.

Kornhaber: I’m so sick of narratives where, the whole time, you as a viewer are stressed about the protagonist’s secret coming out. There are so many movies like that, and I was concerned this movie would follow that path—but there’s such a relief when her friends join her in the secret and it becomes a totally different kind of movie, where you use your superpowers to have fun.

Cruz: Yeah, it feels so much more realistic to how, if one of your friends were to turn into a giant panda, that’s what you would do. (Laughs.)

Kornhaber: It’s a movie that has conflict, but it’s not gut-wrenching. The real conflict is just: How do I be myself, but also keep my parents happy? She’s a straight-A student. She’s always done what she’s told. That incredible cringe moment you mentioned, Lenika, where the mom marches into the convenience store and confronts the 17-year-old boy Meilin had a crush on— what teenager would not fly off the handle over that? But that’s part of the specificity of this movie. In this family, she really will not say one negative word to her mom. And that’s another way in which it’s telling a story that is less rote than you expect but, I also imagine, true to how a lot of people have lived their lives. It’s certainly true to what appears to be the case for her mom.

Li: Yeah, what’s so special about this film is that all of these supernatural elements work because the rest of it is so specific and rooted in the real. It can borrow from anime visuals and make her eyes go all sparkly when she sees her crush, but at the same time, this is a story that’s not taking place in a fantasy world. It takes place in Toronto in 2002. She has a core group of friends that I think a lot of viewers could see themselves being a part of. And the real conflict, even though there are supernatural elements, is being unable to communicate with a parent.

Something a lot of people have taken away, and something specific about this film, is that the immigrant experience does come with this feeling of needing to live up to your family’s expectations. They’ve sacrificed so much to make it over here. You better do your job and be a perfect child, or else you are disappointing not just your parents, but your entire lineage. But the film is also really just about not being able to communicate with your mom.

Kornhaber: Yeah, it really does feel like a companion piece to Encanto, the other huge Disney streaming hit this year, which is set in Colombia but is also about a family with supernatural powers that are undergoing a crisis that is ultimately resolved by communication and understanding and compromise. It really is a remarkable crop of movies. They’re not slaying a dragon. It’s doing something much more subtle and real. Why do you think Disney is trying to make movies like this right now? Or, rather, why does the culture want these movies? Because they are hits.

Li: I think there are a couple of different factors at play. The first is that Frozen was such an unexpected hit for Disney—and it was a hit that actually retooled the villain story line that we were talking about. Elsa was supposed to be the scary, wicked queen who runs her ice castle away from Arendelle, but the story got retooled to be about sisterhood, with Elsa not as this big bad, but just someone who can’t get a handle on her powers. And, of course, that’s a story beat we see in later Disney animated films.

Frozen was such an unexpected smash hit—but at its core, it is about family. It didn’t have an explicit villain throughout, and I think Disney started tapping that well because they saw how popular it was. Along with that, I think there’s been a push in recent years for more culturally specific stories. There’s been this recognition of culturally specific stories as universal and resonant and, rather than something to be avoided, something that has an audience.

And as animators at Disney and Pixar started recognizing that, they turned to writing those stories and green-lighting those stories. And, behind the scenes, there’s been more female leadership. And because of that, there are more stories that I think women storytellers realize haven’t been told as much. When you think about it, teenage girlhood isn’t really often depicted in stories for children, even in stories for adults.

Kornhaber: What did you make of this movie’s portrayal of someone who’s the child of immigrants? Because I just saw Everything Everywhere All at Once, the incredible science-fictional, multiverse-tripping, make-you-cry-and-barf movie that is currently shaping conversation—and it’s also about a Chinese immigrant family.

Li: I just had this conversation with a friend where we were like, “Are there too many? Is it weird that there are all these Millennial stories about immigrant children?” And this friend of mine was like, “This is the most Asian-immigrant thing we could be saying right now, asking if there’s too much and if we should stop.” (Laughs.)

That said, I do think Asian casts and Asian storytellers have been finding their moment recently. And I don’t mind there being a wave.

Cruz: I’m happy that we have gotten to this point where representation can be a small part of a bigger conversation. For a little while, it felt like every time there was a movie that starred protagonists of color, there was a reaction like: “Ooh, representation! Is this going to fix Hollywood’s diversity problem?”

And it feels like the tenor of the conversation has changed a lot. These movies are super popular despite the complaints that they would only resonate with certain kinds of people. In Turning Red’s case, there was the viral review that said this movie was just made for the director and her immediate family. But the fact that so many people are watching it is proof of the opposite.

Kornhaber: Do movies like this mean that we’ve moved past being able to talk about actual villains in our culture? There are real Scars and Jafars out there. (Laughs.) Is it that, as these stories move into these more real-world stories, it would be politically dicey for Disney to try to identify who are maybe the villains in real-world scenarios? Or at least it would be a bit dark and disturbing?

Cruz: It makes me think a little of the discourse around Zootopia and how people were trying to draw these clear political parallels, but it just wasn’t so easy. And I feel like that was maybe the closest we’ve gotten to people reading into these films. I think Disney and Pixar maybe don’t want to make antagonists that correspond too closely to real life. Especially in these more culturally specific stories.

Li: Yeah. And I don’t want all future animated films to eschew villains. I think there’s a place for an all-out meanie, especially if it brings back those excellent villain songs.

Kornhaber: Yeah, the villains are some of the best things in children’s entertainment of years past.

Li: I do think the idea to complicate certain villains is a good one. Instead of having the mother be all-out terrible, encouraging kids to think about how their parents view them and what their parents were like as children seems positive. But there are also other stories that don’t require developing sympathy. I’m thinking of the live-action Cruella, which we definitely didn’t need.

Kornhaber: Yeah, we love a lot of old Disney villains, but the company has famously had this tendency for creating queer-coded villains. Whether that’s Ursula or Jafar or Scar, the baddie is usually someone who’s kind of campy and of marginal identity. And if these movies were made now, it’s almost impossible to imagine them getting away with not presenting that character’s side of the story a little more, showing whatever traumas cause them to be just so devilish. And honestly, I understand the impulse to move away from opening that can of worms. It’s a lot more about conquering your inner stuff and working things out with the people around you.