Turning Red is the pinnacle of a lot of changes in how Disney approaches animation. Pixar, as well as the animation industry in general, has a long-standing reputation for being a boy’s club. This tide of male domination in Disney’s legendary computer-animated studio started to change in 2018, with Domee Shi making history by being the first woman to write and direct a Disney Pixar short. The short in question was Bao.
With its poignant themes about growing up, growing apart and the importance of family, this fantasy-driven short, which drew heavily on Shi’s experiences growing up in an Asian household, was the recipient of the 91st Academy Award for Best Animated Short. Now, with Turning Red, Shi is once again making history for Pixar as their first female director — as well as being at the helm of the animated movie’s all-female team which, again, is another ‘first’ for Pixar.
All the things that made Bao so special — such as its homage to Asian culture, its relatable and hard-hitting portrayal of fraught family dynamics, and the use of fantasy as a storytelling device are also at the heart of Turning Red, making it a compelling, thoughtful, and thoroughly entertaining film that will linger with you a while after you leave the theatre: no matter what your age. To learn more about how Shi brought Mei’s inner panda to life, The Digital Fix spoke to her and producer Lindsey Collins.
The Digital Fix: So, Domee and Lindsay, it’s really lovely to meet you both! Firstly, I want to ask about where the idea of Turning Red came from — What made you want to pitch a film set in the noughties centred on ancestor worship and magical realism?
Domee Shi: Turning Red was roughly inspired by my own life growing up in the noughties. We don’t say it that way, in the United States, but I love it, I’m adopting it. Yeah, I grew up in the noughties! I’m from Toronto, Canada and the movie is roughly inspired by my relationship with my mom, growing up, and just the ups and downs of puberty — like, you know, waking up one day and not recognising yourself in your own body — and the fun and the awkwardness and the cringe of that.
Lindsey Collins: You also had an experience of living behind the temple.
Domee: Oh, yeah! Every time I work on a project, like with Bao and now with Turning Red, I feel this excitement in inviting global audiences into this world that maybe not a lot of people are familiar with, like the world of a Chinese family living in Canada, the world of an ancestral temple and all of the customs and details of it — I just thought it was a really cool setting to have this story take place.
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TDF: And Domee specifically, how does it feel to have your feature-length directorial debut?
DS: It feels amazing. It feels surreal. Yeah, I still can’t believe we finished this movie during a pandemic. Crazy. And that it looks so good! Yeah, it was pretty amazing.
TDF: How does it feel to be a part of the first Pixar movie to be solely led by a woman team, to feature an Asian lead character, and set in Canada?
LC: I know, a lot of firsts on this film! I think in kind of a weird way, it’s like anything — you don’t really pay attention to how unique, how groundbreaking, or how first it all was when you’re in the middle of it. I feel like the first time I certainly really felt it was when we had the wrap party for our whole studio. It’s the first time the studio had kind of gotten together in like almost two years. And certainly the first time anybody had seen the movie on a big screen.
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We pulled them all together, and at the beginning, the leadership stood up on the stage to thank and welcome people and we were all looking around and being like, “Oh my God, we’re all women up here!” There was a huge wave of love and excitement in the fact that there were all women standing on stage. It was real. It was great.
TDF: With some of the integral themes of this movie, like expectations, pressure, family relationships —I feel like a lot of people are going to resonate with that. What do you want people to get out of this movie?
DS: After they watch the movie, I would love people to feel this permission to embrace their inner pandas and embrace that wild, inner beast inside of them; to just embrace the messiness of life, to not be afraid to be loud, weird, take up space, and be hairy. And horny! I probably shouldn’t say that (laughs), but yeah, to just have permission to embrace your inner wild side as Mei did.
TDF: Finally, what are both of your inner pandas like?
LC: I think mine is certainly loud, and out of control. I think with my role in life, especially as a working mum, is to try to maintain control, or present this semblance of control. So for me, yeah, it’s probably the person who’s willing to be out of control and let things be messy. I think that’s tricky. And I’d like to embrace that.
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DS: Yeah, I’m the same way. I think my inner panda is very excitable, loud and obsessive like Mei is in the movie with 4*TOWN. For me, currently, it’s Phantom of the Opera, which I just watched again, in London, for the second time in two months!