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.

Note: This essay includes Turning Red spoilers. SDG Original source: Catholic World Report

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 been 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).

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.

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.)

Animation, Disney: Eye on the Mouse, Docter-era Disney, Mother Knows Best, Motherhood, Pixar


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Fathers know best? Phil Lord and Chris Miller’s surprising animated dads

Particularly striking to me, and even moving, is a theme connecting Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (though not The Lego Movie): how themes of father–son conflict ubiquitous in other cartoons play out with unexpectedly insightful, consequential fathers.

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We need to talk about cartoon parents

I don’t expect animated heroes to have uniformly ideal, harmonious family lives. It’s not realistic — and it doesn’t make for good drama, which needs conflict. The ubiquity of the pattern, though, is striking.

Junior Knows Best POST

Junior Knows Best

In theaters right now are two charming and visually engaging animated films at opposite ends of the budget spectrum, different in many respects but with some interesting overlap as well. One is How to Train Your Dragon, DreamWorks’ big-budget CGI adaptation of a popular children’s book. The other is The Secret of Kells, an Oscar-nominated Irish animated indie made on a comparative shoestring budget, now in limited release.