TORONTO — The Canadian director of Pixar’s latest outing “Turning Red” points to innumerable elements that could have torpedoed her mission to spotlight a Chinese-Canadian girl in Toronto wrestling with puberty.
Domee Shi packs it full of Canuck jokes, Asian references, immigrant experiences, thirsty teen girl obsessions and a not-so-subtle reference to menstruation.
Her heroine is Mei, a 13-year-old girl in 2002 Toronto who discovers that she has one big problem: she turns into a big red panda whenever she gets a little too excited or anxious.
Shi marvels that she “never” received pushback on any of those unique elements from the studio, possibly because they were all in her very first pitch, which she made just after the success of her 2018 Oscar-winning Pixar short “Bao.”
“I pitched two other ideas that weren’t this personal or Canadian, so they had others to choose from,” Shi notes in a virtual press junket from Toronto with some of her cast.
“But I think those are the things that drew Pixar to this idea. They had never seen a story that explores a universal coming-of-age through such a uniquely specific lens of a Chinese Canadian girl.”
The story is indeed a personal one for Shi, who also grew up in Toronto in a protective Chinese family around the same time.
“I was that 13-year-old girl who was struggling between being her mom’s perfect daughter and these raging hairy hormones inside of me,” says Shi, the first woman and woman of colour to receive sole directing credit for a Pixar feature.
“I really wanted to go back in time and unpack what was going on during puberty not just from my perspective, but also from my mom’s perspective, and analyze this phenomenon in a fun and interesting way,” she says.
Shi blends CG animation with Japanese anime to express Mei’s “big colourful emotions,” with “Sailor Moon” and Japanese animation master Hayao Miyazaki as key inspirations.
The production team also worked with cultural consultants to ensure they accurately captured Asian Canadian experiences with greater specificity — something the director says helped her become a better filmmaker.
It helps that the film is anchored not only by a performance from California newcomer Rosalie Chiang as Mei, but Ottawa’s Sandra Oh as her mother Ming, who flips the tiger mom stereotype on its head, granting her greater depth.
“I’m just so pleased to be a part of that storytelling in fleshing out the complicated relationship between a mother and a daughter, and that Ming is a full-fledged character,” Oh says.
More than anything, she has high praise for Shi: “You need to have a helmer who knows exactly what she wants to get. Hats off to her for having such a clear vision.”
Maitreyi Ramakrishnan, the “Never Have I Ever Star” star from Mississauga, Ont., co-stars as Mei’s “moody, gloomy” friend Priya, and says the setting is what locked her in.
“This is where I grew up, it really doesn’t get better than this,” she says, adding that seeing the SkyDome in its original form and a subtle blue jay in the foreground were her favourite landmarks captured in the film.
(For Oh, that would be the corner of Spadina and Dundas, where she spent “many a time.”)
Ramakrishnan says, for her, it’s the bond between Mei and her friends that is most special.
“Portraying positive female friendships are very important to me, because growing up, we got catty portrayals and that takes a toll when you’re a young woman starting your own story.”
Shi calls the film “a love letter for myself and for girls that are growing up with all of the messiness that it entails.”
“My hope is that they’ll see that all of their feelings, all the fights they’re getting into with their moms and their friends, all of it is normal.
“And that making mistakes is part of the plan of growing up, it’s all very necessary and they should embrace that.”
Shi says that with the rise of anti-Asian racism since the pandemic began, the timing of “Turning Red” is essential, even though she began making it four years ago, “before all of this craziness.”
“It’s super-important to have movies like this out right now that show Asians in a very human, empowering and beautiful way just as proof that we deserve to be here,” says Shi.
“We deserve to have stories told about us and we deserve to be safe and celebrated.”
“Turning Red” was originally set for a theatrical release, but plans changed in January as COVID-19 cases surged.
The film debuts Friday on Disney Plus, and Shi says she’s had “mixed feelings” about it becoming the third Pixar release to head straight to streaming.
Still, “Disney Plus seemed like the obvious solution” she allows.
“We’re lucky in seeing how well ‘Soul’ and ‘Luca’ were received, that gave us more confidence.”
And although she sees progress in representation in front of and behind the camera, Shi says filmmakers must band together for that to continue.
“I feel this responsibility to pay forward all of the opportunities and support that I’ve gotten and make sure that I’m not the last female filmmaker or filmmaker of colour, and that we continue telling and supporting diverse stories at the studio and in the industry.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 9, 2022.
Sadaf Ahsan, The Canadian Press