In her first feature-length Pixar film, Oscar-winning director Domee Shi seeks to unpack complex questions about Asian mothers & daughters, but also to tell a coming-of-age story that feels universal.
In the trailer for “Turning Red,” a confident Mei Lee earns an A-plus on her test, shows off her flute skills, cares for the community temple, leads an environmental protest and shows off the matching friendship bracelets she shares with her three best friends.
“I’m Meilin Lee. I wear what I want, say what I want, 24/7, 365,” she declares. “But I don’t got time to mess around.”
That’s before she is transformed into a giant red panda, with a bright orange face and expressive white eyebrows. In fits of strong emotion, Mei takes on a much fluffier corporeal form, a nightmare for any teenager just trying to find themself. Actor Rosalie Chiang stars as Mei in her breakout role, alongside familiar actors such as Sandra Oh, Maitreyi Ramakrishnan, Wai Ching Ho and James Hong.
NextShark spoke with “Turning Red” director Domee Shi and production designer Rona Liu about their experiences working on the film.
Inspirations from Eastern animations
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Visually, “Turning Red” draws inspiration from the 2-D style of anime combined with Pixar’s recognizable, lifelike 3-D style, a hybrid that was painstakingly developed for the movie. Smaller details like the characters’ eyes were enlarged and exaggerated to produce a look more characteristic of Eastern animation styles. These choices were championed by Shi and Liu, who wanted the movie to reflect the inspiration of both the Eastern and Western shows and movies they grew up consuming.
In addition to drawing on the visual styles of major entertainment from their childhoods, Liu and Shi also referenced many of their personal aesthetics from back in the day.
“We were opening up our own yearbooks and our own photo albums, looking at what kind of butterfly clips did we wear,” Liu said.
Inherently Asian American, with a universal story
After the success of her 2018 short film “Bao,” which won an Academy Award, Shi said she was asked why she chose to portray a relationship between mother and son rather than a daughter. At the time, she joked that a mother-daughter relationship would take a feature-length film to unpack.
In conversation with NextShark, she elaborated: “At least for my relationship with my mom, I fought a lot more with her than with my dad. But we were also a lot closer as a result.” She said the relationship was “juicy” to try to depict onscreen.
“I think a lot of mothers put a lot of expectations on their daughters to be perfect, to kind of build up this armor to protect them from the world, which eventually does more harm than good.”
Shi’s framing speaks to her desire to develop a story that feels more universal. Despite “Turning Red”’s strong themes based on Chinese American and Chinese Canadian culture, she believes that the message of the story can appeal to a broader audience.
“In light of all the terrible things that have happened to our community, it’s more important than ever to really showcase these stories and put our faces out there to tell the world hey, we’re here, we have emotions and complex feelings and relationships, and the issues we go through are universal.”
At the same time, the movie is deeply personal. Shi said the origin of the film lies in her own roots.
“I just wanted to tell something that was true to me, and I wanted to share it with the world.”
Art Director Rona Liu voiced similar sentiments.
“The key word that comes to mind is just authenticity. The story of ‘Turning Red’ is so personal to Domee, but also to all of us making it. I was Mei growing up. I was that hormonal teenager who was struggling with her relationship with her mom. Having something so authentic and so true as a subject matter makes so much more of a rich and relatable story… Our film is really depicting something that is true and universal to all young boys and girls going through puberty.”
“Turning Red” will be available to exclusively stream through Disney Plus on March 11.