From director Domee Shi, Turning Red is the first ever feature-length Pixar film created by a female director. The twenty-fifth film from the studio, Turning Red follows a thirteen-year-old Meilin “Mei-Mei” Lee as she navigates the minefield that is teenage puberty, and the co-existing relationships with friends and family along the way.
“The inspiration behind Turning Red just came from my own life growing up in the early aughts,” said Shi when asked about the origins of her debut during the official press conference for the Pixar film. “Chinese Canadian, dorky, sassy, nerdy girl who thought she had everything under control. She was her mom’s good little girl, and then boom, puberty hit, and I was bigger. I was hairier. Was hungry all the time. I was a hormonal mess, and I was fighting with my mom every other day, and making this film was my chance to go back to that time and understand and excavate what was happening back there.”
But the road to the director’s chair wasn’t easy; being a trailblazer never is. “When I first started at Pixar, there were only four or five women in the story department out of 30 or 40,” she recalled. “But we started having lunches together, and sharing our stories. I remember this one lunchtime where we all went around, we said aloud our goals. And that was the first time that I actually said aloud, ‘I want to direct’. I was then very embarrassed… but everyone was like, yeah, yeah yeah!”
Eventually, Shi went on to direct the Pixar SparksShort Bao, which accompanied Incredibles 2 in theaters. “It can feel so lonely being a woman, being a person of color in this industry, that I think it’s so important to find those colleagues, those allies to just help you not feel alone as you struggle and work our way through this industry. So that was huge for me.” Bao would go on to win the Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film in 2019.
One of Domee Shi’s primary collaborators on Turning Red, the film’s screenwriter Julia Cho rejoiced in the opportunity to explore her own upbringing and bring it to the big screen. “It was really just a joy to be able to embrace all of my own self in the writing of this, and having two partners who loved it,” proclaimed Cho. “We would always encourage each other to just bring more and more of ourselves into it. One of the things that Domee and I really connected on pretty early was the fact that we both grew up really tight with our moms.”
This theme of mother-daughter relationships – specifically lovingly strict ones – became a central story element of Turning Red. Mei’s mother Ming is a sort-of overbearing presence that rings true to many’s experiences with their own parents. “Certainly to us, she didn’t seem like a villain,” Cho noted. “She seemed like somebody we could relate to, but definitely on the extreme end.”
Another element of their respective upbringings brought to the table was the idea of childhood friendships – particularly those between teenage girls. In a media market saturated with hyper-dramatized back-stabbing, gossipping teen girls, the Turning Red team wanted to set the record straight. “Having young women and young girls in my life, watching television and films over the years, you just realize, I don’t know who sets this up, that girls are like this,” said Sandra Oh, who voices Mei’s mother Ming. “Because I don’t think it’s very true.”
Beyond disproving the myths of “catty” relationships, the cast and crew of the Pixar film wanted to find truth in their depiction of Turning Red’s principal characters. “When we finally got the chance to make this female friendship, it was very important that it was authentic,” according to Hyein Park, the voice of Mei’s friend Abby. “We always portray that your love interest is the one that you should be closer with, like that’s the real bond,” pointed out actress Maitreyi Ramakrishnan, the voice of Priya, Mei’s other friend in her tight-knit circle. “That always made me sort of skeptical, because wouldn’t your childhood best friend know you better? Don’t they know what your favorite ice cream flavor is? Don’t they know what to do when you’re having a breakdown? That’s important, and growing up, if you don’t have that, you can then get all the lovely internalized misogyny where you’re like, oh, yeah, I only like hanging out with guys because girls are so dramatic.”
Sandra Oh praised the film for doing its best to depict young women and their relationships in the most honest, truthful way possible. “I think this is an extremely good representation of deep friendships, and the highs and lows.” Under the direction of Pixar’s first female director, Turning Red makes a lot of plays to make a difference in the animation world for its female characters. This is the third consecutive Pixar film to forego a traditional theatrical release for streaming exclusivity on Disney+. “While it’s a shame Turning Red will never screen in most theaters, it’s an important film that deserves a large platform, and Disney+ might be its best chance at reaching those who deserve it most.”