Pixar’s Turning Red: Adolescence, Asian family dynamics and diversity

Cold Tea Collective writer Alicia Cheung interviewed director Domee Shi and producer Lindsey Collins about Turning Red, coming of age, and the meaning behind the red panda.

We know Domee Shi for her 2018 Oscar-winning animated short film Bao, and now she’s back as the director of Disney Pixar’s latest animated film Turning Red.

This new original feature film introduces 13 year old, straight-A student, Meilin Lee (voiced by Rosalie Chiang), or “Mei”. As Mei dives headfirst into adolescence, she finds herself navigating her complicated, conflict-filled relationship with her mother Ming Lee (voiced by Sandra Oh).

Credit: Submitted

Led by an all-female creative leadership team, this coming-of-age story – set in Toronto in the early 2000s – is about family, transition, and growth. Cold Tea Collective spoke with Domee Shi and producer Lindsey Collins to discuss the film, family dynamics in Asian culture, the red panda, and diversity.

See also: Strong female voices take centre stage at Vancouver Asian Film Festival

Discussing family culture in Asian culture

Growing up, many North American Asian millennials are familiar with the messy family dynamics and inter-generational differences deeply embedded in Asian culture.

In the film, we see the nitty gritty of the messiness between Mei and her mother Ming. On one hand, Mei wrestles with having to live up to the expectation of being her mother’s perfect, obedient daughter. On the other hand, she grapples with adolescence, her identity, and the person she wants to become.

It was important for Shi and the Disney Pixar team to ensure they didn’t fall into the generic stereotypes of Chinese people. They wanted to paint an authentic portrayal of what Chinese Canadian life in Toronto is like.

“Like for instance Mei’s mother — it could have so easily just gone into the one-dimensional tiger mom territory if we weren’t careful,” Shi said.

Thus, the Disney Pixar team focused on thoughtfully illustrating why Ming is doing the things she’s doing. For instance, in the scene where Ming is spying on Mei at school, she’s not doing it because she’s a “tiger mom”. She’s doing it because she’s worried that her daughter might turn into a giant hormonal animal at any moment.

Turning Red Sandra Oh
Credit: Submitted

See also: Comparing the then and now of tiger moms

The meaning behind the red panda

Whenever Mei feels an intense emotion, whether it be anger, excitement, or sadness, she turns into a ginormous red panda.

While red pandas originate from China, where Mei’s ancestors come from, the animal itself doesn’t have much cultural significance. Shi and her team saw this as an opportunity to create a new meaning for the red panda.

One of the main reasons why the team chose the red panda is because it’s a unique creature — you don’t see a lot of movies and stories about it. And so it gave her team the freedom to come up with their own legend.

“Red pandas to me are the symbol of puberty, of adolescence. They are hairy and awkward.”

Turning Red Red panda
Credit: Submitted

For Shi, the colour red symbolizes puberty. “It’s the colour of menstruation. It’s the colour your face turns when you’re angry, embarrassed, lusting over a cute boy or girl in school.”

The red panda felt like the perfect metaphor for this 13 year old girl to uncontrollably turn into every time she lost control.

A love letter to Toronto and the authentic portrayal of Chinese Canadian life

Turning Red is Shi’s love letter to Toronto.

That Turning Red is based in the city she grew up in holds a special place in her heart. “That I get to put Toronto on the big screen, that it gets to be Toronto and not another city,” Shi said proudly.

For fellow Torontonians — and those who have visited the vibrant city — it brings to life recognizable geographical landmarks, such as Kensington Market, Chinatown along Spadina Avenue, the CN Tower, and the SkyDome (now known as the Rogers Centre).

Not only did Shi and the Disney Pixar team accurately portray the hustle and bustle of Downtown Toronto, but the city’s diversity and culture, too. Collins added that in the world of Pixar, where they’re creating their own world and characters, “diversity is challenging” because everything has to be built and created.

Diversity was really important to Shi, and the Disney Pixar team wanted Turning Red to be accurate to the experiences and the realities of those who live in Toronto, specifically to Chinatown and the different generations living in Chinatown.

The diversity is displayed authentically across Mei and her friends, her classmates, the school security guard, and even the representation of ordinary people on the TTC streetcar — every shot of the film genuinely feels real. Pixar did an excellent job depicting what life is like growing up in Toronto.

Turning Red Mei and friends
Credit: Submitted

Celebrating diversity in 2022 and beyond

As an Asian millennial herself, Shi shares how this is an important story to tell.

“I would’ve loved a movie or TV show that could help make sense of all the struggles and issues I was going through at the time with my body, with my relationships with my mom, with being caught between these two worlds and not knowing who to honour and who to be,” she said.

It’s not about writing a perfect, flawless character. It’s about crafting a message that resonates with the audience to help them understand why characters are making the decisions that they’re making — that’s what makes the characters memorable, bringing them to life.

We see the increasing diversity in the Disney Pixar world over the years with films like Soul (2020) and Coco (2017). This is only the beginning.

“Knowing where we are now, and looking ahead, I’m really excited and people will be really blown away by different stories,” Collins said.

The key takeaway Shi shared is the importance of having a film that could show younger audiences, who are going through the same struggles as Mei, know that “it’s okay, that life is a mess, that not everything is black and white, and that you will survive growing up.”

Turning Red is officially available to stream exclusively on Disney+ starting March 11.

Feature credit: Submitted

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