Domee Shi adds charm to the perils of puberty in ‘Turning Red’

Fascinated by the dangers of puberty, writer-director Domee Shi gave this physiological metamorphosis a uniquely whimsical twist in her first animated feature, Turning Red.

“All of a sudden you wake up and you’ve undergone a transformation overnight,” Shi tells The Envelope. “I wanted to find a way to explore this phenomenon that we all go through, but make it more engaging and fun than what happens in real life.”

To that end, the 33-year-old invented a fantastical metaphor in which a 13-year-old Chinese-Canadian girl, Meilin (voiced by Rosalie Chiang), blows into a giant red panda when overcome with emotion. The fact that the fuzzy creature is native to China, where Shi was born, and that its color is associated with intense emotions made it an ideal symbol of this magical coming of age.

Of course, given the changes its teenage heroine is going through, “Turning Red” includes scenes dealing with menstruation, personal care products, and even one where Meilin goes into “a lustful drawing spiral under her bed” with a secret sketchbook. But as obvious as these themes seemed to Shi and female leadership at Pixar, sections of the audience expressed their unease about these themes when the film released on Disney+ in March.

“It came from an honest place. We didn’t try to shock people,” says Shi. “It’s still taboo because [people] just don’t see it enough in the media. The more we talk about it in movies and TV shows, the more we can normalize it. It shouldn’t be a big deal at this point.”

As the first female solo director of a Pixar feature film, Shi understands more than ever the importance of having diverse perspectives supported and nurtured by major platforms.

“I feel a responsibility to keep the door open and drive the momentum when it comes to reaching out to filmmakers from diverse backgrounds and giving them the opportunity to tell their stories,” she adds.

Three children stare at a worried-looking red panda in the cartoon "To redden."

In Turning Red, 13-year-old Meilin transforms into a red panda when her emotions get the better of her.


For Shi, one of the main motivations for scoring “Turning Red” in the early 2000s, when she was still a young teenager, was to witness a boy band concert on behalf of her excited characters. Although Shi’s parents never allowed her to attend a Backstreet Boys or ‘N Sync show, Meilin and her friends manage to see 4*Town – the fictional group in the film.

“My classmates came back from the concerts with memorabilia, and they had a shine about them that I was so jealous of,” Shi recalls. “I thought, ‘What happens at these concerts? It feels like they went in girls and came out women. I want that.'” [Laughs]

Raised in Toronto, where her story takes place, Shi deftly pays homage to her Canadian identity with small onscreen details like the color of the local currency or the fact that milk is sold in bags rather than cartons in parts of that country. But more importantly, she wanted to organically represent the enriching multiculturalism she grew up with.

“I wanted to make sure that this was reflected in Mei’s circle of friends, but also in her school and in the population that we see as background figures,” she says.

Stylistically, Shi describes her sensibilities as an amalgamation of her admiration for Walt Disney Animation and Pixar and her love for anime, including the works of master Hayao Miyazaki and series such as Sailor Moon, Ranma 1/2, and Inuyasha. ”

“I wanted to create our own ‘Totoro’ for Pixar. That was Panda Mei’s goal,” she says. “I also like how expressive Japanese cartoons are. They exaggerate the features on the characters’ faces to really emphasize a reaction like shock, lust, or anger. It felt like the perfect style to tell a story about a girl who feels her emotions so strongly.”

One of the most challenging issues addressed in Turning Red is the persistence of intergenerational trauma in parent-child relationships, particularly among first-generation immigrant children. This hurtful notion is also present in Daniel Kwans and Daniel Scheinert’s multiverse box office hit Everything Everywhere All at Once.

In both titles, parents ultimately apologize to their children. Shi believes this represents her and the Daniels’ exploration of wish-fulfillment and the desire for family therapy.

“You can’t help but put what you’re going through into your art. It makes sense that we both talked about it,” Shi notes. “Intergenerational trauma is a hot topic among people of our generation and background. There is no clear answer to that. Working through the answer in what we do is our way of finding it out for ourselves.”

After Turning Red has reached viewers worldwide, many of whom have sent her adorable fan mail, Shi can finally reflect on the experience of winning an Oscar for her animated short Bao in 2019. While she appreciates the recognition of this honor, she recalls having to fly home to get back to work the day after the ceremony.

“I didn’t feel like I inherited any cinematic superpowers from the statue,” Shi says, laughing. “It’s still very difficult to make films.” Domee Shi adds charm to the perils of puberty in ‘Turning Red’

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