The latest animated feature treat from Pixar is the all-new Turning Red, the tale of a confident, slightly dorky 13-year-old named Meilin Lee who has a bit of a big red panda problem. We hear more from director Domee Shi.
When Meilin begins to mysteriously “poof” into a giant, hyper-emotional red panda at the most inconvenient times, it has quite the effect on her social life – and her life in general. But she quickly adapts to the unusual situation. She was also inspired somewhat by the adolescent life of Shi.
“She’s spunky, confident, nerdy, passionate, weird and a little bit snooty,” says Shi of her main character. “When I was her age, I was Mei. I was writing Harry Potter fan fiction, passionately drawing fan art. I had a secret sketchbook that my parents did not know about. Now that I’m grown, I know so many amazing women who all had nerdy beginnings. I just wanted to show that with Mei.”
The red panda version of Mei is the same Mei that her friends and family know and love, just eight-feet tall and rather klutzy – and impossibly cute, to boot! There’s more to the story though than just a fun tale of a girl who turns into a panda when she gets emotional.
“We’re basically using the red panda as an adorable metaphor for the very unadorable phenomenon of puberty,” continues Shi. “I really wanted to explore the conflicts of a young teen girl, how she’s torn between being a good daughter and embracing her true messy self. One minute, everything’s perfect, and then, just like with all of us, all of a sudden there’s terror everywhere. She’s way taller, hungrier, more emotional. She’s, in fact, turned into a giant red panda, and the only way to turn back into a human girl is to take deep breaths, calm herself down and control her emotions. It’s kind of like the Incredible Hulk, but cuter!”
A mother-daughter relationship is at the centre of Turning Red, and it’s a theme that’s very close to the director’s heart says Shi, who previously gave us the adorable 2018 Oscar-winning short Bao. It was the tale of a male dumpling – simply because Shi felt the story of a daughter would require a lot more screen time than that of a short offered.
“I said it would take a whole feature to unpack the mother-daughter relationship,” says Shi. “It was actually a big motivating factor in my pitch for Turning Red. It’s never black and white. At the beginning of the movie, Mei genuinely loves her relationship with her mom, but she’s being pulled in new directions – as everyone her age is. It’s a time of big changes.”
The mother in question, Ming Lee, voiced by Sandra Oh, is a proud wife, devoted mother and hard worker, and always a picture of elegance.
“Ming is a compilation of all of the very strong and awesome Asian women in my life,” says Shi. “Ming can be intense, but all of the crazy stuff she does is motivated by her love for her daughter.”
As Turning Red is a teenaged girl tale set in the early 2000s, two words were deemed necessary by Shi: “boy band”. 4*Town is said boy band du jour, who inexplicably number five members – something that leaves space for a fun aside from one of the older generation characters.
“They represent that one band – that one song we all heard at her age that transformed us,” says Shi. “They’re Mei’s first crush, her first obsession. This passion for 4*Town is really her first dip into adolescence. We needed Mei to be obsessed with something that her mom would not approve of. Boy bands were the first step into the world of boys for a lot of girls that age. The guys were all super pretty, polished, soft and loving, and they had a way of bringing girls and their besties together. Plus, I thought it’d be really cool to create an animated boy band.”
Three songs were created especially for Turning Red, mining that classic boy band sound. The hit machine team of Billie Eilish and brother Finneas were drafted in.
“The first one is the hit that everybody knows,” says Shi. “Then there’s the earnest, heart-on-your-sleeve power ballad. The third is the party show-stopper—the fun, energetic song. We knew if we had those three songs, we could use them throughout the movie.”
Turning Red is available April 27 on 4K Ultra HD, Blu-ray and DVD.