Being a 13-year-old girl entering puberty can be a nightmare: What is going on with my body? Why do I feel like I’m going to explode? What are periods? Wait, this happens every month?!
Director Domee Shi’s “Turning Red,” premiering Friday on Disney+, doesn’t shy away from the pain, horror and confusion of adolescence — but delightfully embodies it all in a fuzzy animated panda. The film’s protagonist, Meilin Lee (voiced by Rosalie Chiang), is a 13-year-old growing up in Toronto. One morning, she wakes up, looks in the mirror and discovers she has turned into a red panda. Shocked and mortified, she stumbles around her room and just wants to hide.
Meilin soon learns that her transformation is considered a rite of passage for generations of women in her family. Anytime she experiences strong emotions — including many inopportune moments — she changes into a red panda.
“It was just something about the red panda that was the perfect animal metaphor for puberty. I couldn’t think of any other animal that was naturally red other than the red panda,” Shi told HuffPost. “And it’s just so cute.”
In 2019, the Chinese Canadian director won the Oscar for Best Animated Short Film — becoming the first woman of color to do so — for her sweet and touching Pixar short, “Bao.” Now, Shi is making her feature directorial debut with “Turning Red,” the animation studio’s first feature by a solo woman director. Throughout the film, Shi’s creative vision really shines through — from the animation techniques, which combined Pixar and Japanese anime, to the cultural and geographic details from her childhood.
Like her movie’s protagonist, Shi grew up in Toronto in the early 2000s. The idea for “Turning Red” and the image of the red panda “came from me wanting to make a movie for that 13-year-old Domee who was struggling with her body and her emotions and fighting with her mom every day and wanting to understand what was going on at that time, but in a fun and unique and magical way,” Shi said.
The director said she incorporated many everyday elements of her own background into the movie.
“One of my favorite scenes is near the beginning of the movie, where Mei is just making dumplings with her mom, and they’re watching Cantonese soaps on TV. And her dad’s just stir-frying in the background,” Shi said. “It’s a typical scene straight out of my own childhood that I just thought was so cool that we could bring to life in a big-budget movie, just to be able to celebrate dumplings and Cantonese soaps and dads being badass cooks.”
Much of the movie is about the relationship between Mei and her mom, Ming (voiced by Sandra Oh). Like many kids her age, Mei wants to have agency and be independent. But in crafting the close bond between mother and daughter, Shi said she wanted to avoid a more stereotypical story structure in which a rebellious kid tries to break free from an overbearing parent.
“For this story, I wanted to make it clear from the beginning: Mei truly loves her family and really enjoys spending time with her mom,” Shi said. “They’re super, super close, and she doesn’t like that she’s moving away from her parents and that growing up in a Western society is pulling her away from her family at home.”
“It’s more of a nuanced struggle for her,” she continued. “That specifically, I think, is a struggle that a lot of immigrant kids, a lot of Asian kids deal with, that I thought was important to put into the movie.”
Another feature that gives “Turning Red” its specificity is the time period. Set in 2002, the movie contains an abundance of references to the early 2000s: flip phones, camcorders, Tamagotchis, the “Cha Cha Slide” song and boy bands.
“It really feels like we’re taking you back in time, back to the 2000s, into this Asian tween fever dream,” Shi said.
In one of the movie’s subplots, Mei and her best friends, Miriam, Abby and Priya (voiced by Ava Morse, Hyein Park and “Never Have I Ever” star Maitreyi Ramakrishnan, respectively), have to figure out how to earn enough money to see their favorite boy band, 4*Town (which, as Mei’s mother points out, inexplicably has five members). Billie Eilish and Finneas O’Connell wrote the fictional band’s original songs, which really do feel like they’re straight out of a Backstreet Boys or ’N Sync album. The movie also includes several fantastic needle drops of real-life songs, such as a scene featuring Destiny Child’s “Bootylicious,” which will probably transport any 1990s or early 2000s kid back to that time.
“I just love all of the music from the early 2000s, and it was so cool to be able to bring that into the movie,” Shi said. “And that song [“Bootylicious”], too, I think, is perfect. If you listen to the lyrics, it is about embracing all the jiggly, raunchy sides of yourself. And Mei’s embracing that part of herself in the moment, too.”
After studying animation in college, Shi landed an internship at Pixar in 2011 and has been there ever since. She worked her way up as a story artist on films such as “Inside Out,” “Toy Story 4” and “Incredibles 2.” While working on “Inside Out,” she pitched an idea for a short film, which became “Bao.” One of the biggest challenges of directing a feature as opposed to a short, she said, was “embracing how chaotic directing a feature can be and how, at some point, you are working on every single stage of the movie all at once.”
“You’re approving shots for animation, but at the same time, you’re back in the script addressing notes that you’ve gotten from execs. At the same time, you’re looking at lighting. And all of that is happening all at once on any given day,” Shi said. In contrast, the production process for “Bao” largely took place in order. ″So that was really tricky for me mentally, jumping back and forth in time and working on different parts of the movie as it all came together.”
For Shi, one of the gifts of working in animation is being able to think more imaginatively about how to capture the messiness of life, including things like puberty and periods.
“When it’s happening to you at the time, it just feels so nightmarish and awkward and embarrassing. But now that there’s some distance between me and 13-year-old me, I can look back and I can laugh at it. I can analyze it from every angle,” Shi said. “And that’s the beauty of animation, too. Animation lets you explore complex, deep or traumatic or cringey topics, but in an accessible and visual and creative way.”
“Turning Red” premieres Friday on Disney+.