Director Domee Shi is elated as she discusses one of her favorite scenes from her feature debut: when its 13-year-old protagonist Meilin Lee “draws down her lusty drawing spiral under her bed with her sketchbook “.
After looking at a silly doodle of a boy she had drawn in the corner of her homework, Mei suddenly gets up from her desk, rolls under her bed, and begins frantically drawing picture after picture of her neighborhood crush. The spell is broken only by a knock on his door by his mother.
It’s just one of the glimpses into the world of nerdy teenage girls that Shi was thrilled to bring to life in “Turning Red,” Pixar’s 25th animated feature and first directed solely by a woman. It comes out Friday on Disney+.
“I’ve never seen this before in a lot of movies, but it’s an experience that, if you talk to female artists, they’ve had,” said Shi, who recalled in a recent video call from have their own secret sketchbooks. as she grew up. “I just want people to find out that girls can be just as weird and evil and weird as boys can be with this movie.”
“Turning Red” follows Mei (voiced by Rosalie Chiang) as she wakes up one morning to find that due to a secret family oddity, she has turned into a large red panda. The transformation is not permanent but is triggered when she feels intense emotions. That would be a disadvantage for any teenager, but Mei is also blessed with an overprotective mother, Ming (Sandra Oh), who has no problem embarrassing her in front of her peers.
She’ll even show Mei’s secret drawings to the cute boy who inspired them.
“I like to think that Mei, in all her innocence, doesn’t know how to draw the lower half of a boy,” said Shi, who insists that many teenage girls have a mermaid phase. “So she draws [him with] a mermaid tail, because it’s easier to imagine.
Although Walt Disney Studios as a whole has started producing more inclusive animated features, including “Moana” (2016), “Coco” (2017), “Soul” (2020), “Raya and the Last Dragon” (2021) and “Encanto” (2021), a story centered on a modern teenage girl is a first for the historically boy-centric Pixar.
As she wrapped up work on her 2018 Oscar-winning short “Bao” at Pixar, Shi knew she wanted her next film to be a girl’s coming-of-age story. The Chinese-Canadian director describes “Turning Red” as “the most personal and strangest” of the feature film ideas she has presented to the studio.
“I introduced it as a girl going through magical puberty,” Shi said. Although the story elements and even the mechanics of Mei’s transformation evolved during production, “it was always going to be about a girl going through magical puberty and poofing uncontrollably into this giant, red, hormonal creature.” .
Set in and around Toronto’s Chinatown in 2002, “Turning Red” is a celebration of teenage girls, their experiences and their interests. This meant channeling Shi’s own teenage interests, including anime and boy bands. Below, she explains how four key influences helped shape the unique expression of “Turning Red.”
This anime look
“The anime was a huge inspiration for the look of this movie, for the style of animation,” said Shi, who grew up watching shows like “Sailor Moon,” “Pokémon” and “ Fruit Basket”. “I’ve always loved how colorful and expressive anime is. How they really exaggerate the characters’ facial features and reactions, and you really feel what the characters are feeling at any given moment.
It was “the perfect style to make us feel what Mei feels, because she feels so many great emotions in the story,” Shi added. “We really wanted the world to feel the way Mei sees the world.”
The challenge for “Turning Red” was to combine elements of Japanese anime, which are visually more stylized and graphic – and generally two-dimensional – with Pixar’s more western three-dimensional CG style. But it was a challenge that “everyone on the crew was really excited to explore”.
Anime fans will recognize some of the most obvious elements present in “Turning Red,” including the way the characters’ eyes grow large and twinkle when excited, as well as the color palette of the film’s world. This is also reflected in certain camera angles, the lighting, and in character movements.
“The colors of ‘Sailor Moon’ and the magical girl anime, we were hugely inspired by that,” Shi said. “There’s just something so romantic and dreamy about those color palettes of those 90s anime that I really wanted to capture in film.”
Beyond specific scenes, the anime’s influence is also reflected in how Mei and her best friends, like the teenage warriors in “Sailor Moon,” have their own signature colors. Shi cites titles such as ‘Ranma 1/2’ and ‘Fruits Basket’ – two series where teenagers are cursed to transform between human and animal forms with specific triggers – as inspiration for rules and mechanics. of transformation in “Turning Red”.
“I’ve always loved how fast and loose a lot of anime plays with magical transformation,” Shi said. “They don’t really explain the rules of magic too much. And everyone sort of accepts that. We really borrowed that for our movie.
But anime isn’t the only inspiration behind Mei’s story. Coming-of-age titles Shi remembers watching during his teenage and teenage years include Disney Channel Originals such as “The Thirteenth Year” (about a teenager who learns he is part mermaid), “The Luck of the Irish” (about a teenage boy who learns he’s part pixie) and “Wendy Wu: Homecoming Warrior” (about a teenage girl who learns that she is the reincarnation of a mighty warrior).
“I guess Disney Channel was my biggest creative inspiration to make this movie,” laughed Shi, recalling that even “A Goofy Movie,” one of his favorite movies, is a story about the tension between a teenager and his parents.
In “Turning Red”, Mei is caught between her love for her parents and family and her love for her friends and interests that her parents don’t quite understand. Although “Bao” is also a story of a mother and a child, Shi felt she still had more to explore about the dynamics of a mother-daughter relationship.
The director acknowledges that the story could have easily fallen into the more typical pattern of the parent being a “militant obstacle” for the child who wants to break free and become their “true self”.
“But that wasn’t the story I wanted to tell,” Shi said. “It wasn’t like my story, or the story of a lot of immigrant and Asian kids, who get caught up in this struggle between really, really loving their family and their parents and wanting to honor them and wanting to be good to them. But at the same time, growing up in this environment, in this culture, it turns them into different people. [who] naturally estranged from their families.
Because of this, it was important to establish early in the film that while Mei loves her friends, she also genuinely enjoys spending time with her mother. By making this movie, Shi wanted to show kids that things can get messy and it’s okay.
“There will always be this back and forth between these two worlds that you will deal with for the rest of your life,” Shi said. “But it is okay, [and] you are not alone in feeling this.
Besides friends and secret crushes, the root of the growing tension between Mei and Ming is Mei’s love for boy band 4*Town. According to Shi, the group originally started as a simple joke in a scene highlighting how Ming didn’t understand Mei. But the band’s role has grown over time, with original songs written by Billie Eilish and Finneas O’Connell.
“It was just that Mei’s ultimate goal in the movie was not to save the world but to go to her first concert with her best friends,” Shi said. “It was so 13 and so specific and perfect.”
This specificity of Mei’s story is one of the greatest strengths of “Turning Red”. And Shi, one of Pixar’s few Asian-born feature directors, hopes it will mark a shift in the types of stories being told in upcoming films.
“We hope this movie redefines what Universal Stories looks like. and who can tell them too,” Shi said. “The more stories there are where you see people of different ethnicities, different backgrounds, going on journeys, making mistakes, falling in love, getting hurt, all of that, it just proves that we are here and we are human, and deserve to have our stories told.