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The Drama Surrounding Turning Red Explained

Pixar's "Turning Red," the feature-length directorial debut from Oscar-winner Domee Shi, has the internet buzzing. The movie tells the story of a 13-year-old girl living in the Chinese community of Toronto, Canada, who begins to transform into a giant red panda whenever she experiences heightened emotions. Like many Pixar films, it's an allegory for life's various struggles —in this case puberty and the challenges of young adulthood. It is also Shi's love letter to the community of her childhood, a heartfelt depiction of childhood projected through a detailed cultural lens.

With "Turning Red" set to make its exclusive debut on Disney+, reviews of the film have started to pile up. Looper's own review, written by Alistair Ryder, praised the movie as a "return to form" for Pixar and "a breath of fresh air we sorely needed." But not everyone is receiving the movie positively, and one negative review became the source of a fierce backlash that cast a spotlight on the need for diverse stories and the continued representation of marginalized backgrounds in popular media. Here's how it went down.

A narrow-minded review sparked discussions about representation in media

The controversy kicked off when CinemaBlend posted its review for "Turning Red," which was penned by Sean O'Connell, the site's managing director.

The now-deleted review criticized the movie for being grounded in the particularities of an Asian diasporic culture and read in part, "By rooting 'Turning Red' very specifically in the Asian community of Toronto, the film legitimately feels like it was made for Domee Shi's friends and immediate family members. Which is fine—but also, a tad limiting in its scope." In a Tweet promoting the review, O'Connell wrote, "Some Pixar films are made for a universal audience. #TurningRed is not. The target audience for this one feels very specific, and very narrow. If you are in it, this might work well for you. I am not in it. This was exhausting" (via CBC News).

The review triggered widespread backlash, in which many called the review "racist" and "sexist." Screenwriter Gennifer Hutchison tweeted, "Tired of white people (and lotsa dudes) looking at movies and shows about people who aren't white (and aren't dudes) and being like 'I just couldn't connect with it' (esp. when the movies and shows are dealing with universal themes and emotions). It's just a huge bummer."

After many similar criticisms, CinemaBlend pulled the article. Editor-in-Chief Mack Rawden also tweeted a statement: "We failed to properly edit this review, and it never should have gone up. We have unpublished it and assigned to someone else. We have also added new levels of editorial oversight. Thank you to everyone who spoke up."

O'Connell issued an apology, and the Turning Red cast defended the film

Shortly before CinemaBlend pulled Sean O'Connell's review, the critic himself issued an apology. He tweeted, "I'm genuinely sorry for my 'Turning Red' review. Thank you to everyone who has reached out with criticism, no matter how harsh. It is clear that I didn't engage nearly enough with the movie, nor did I explain my point of view well, at all. I really appreciate your feedback."

For many, O'Connell's statement did little to address their criticisms of his review. Danielle Ryan, a staff writer for SlashFilm, replied, "You explained your point of view quite clearly, which is why everyone's so frustrated with you. This isn't an apology dude."

Some called for O'Connell's firing. In a tweet tagging CinemaBlend, Lacey Vorrasi-Banis wrote, "the tweet and review may be deleted, but we now all know Sean O'Connell's racist and sexist opinions because he was given a platform in which to spew his intolerance. Is this what you stand for?"

Meanwhile, those who had worked on "Turning Red" defended its universal appeal. Rosalie Chiang, who voices the film's protagonist Meilin Lee, told CBC News, "This is a coming of age film, everyone goes through this change... I think different people of different cultures are going to go through it differently, but at the end of the day, the core messiness and change is something everyone can relate to." Maitreyi Ramakrishnan, who voices the character Priya, said that the film's story is universally relatable, "regardless of whether you are a young Chinese girl from Canada or not."