Here’s something new: a Pixar feature that includes (gasp) the use of the word “sexy.” In Domee Shi’s charming feature directorial debut, “Turning Red,” an assortment of factors — from the big-time crush that inspires winning leading lady Mei to draw some self-professed “sexy” pictures to the onset of puberty and even the imminent arrival of a beloved boy band to her native Toronto, plus a family curse — conspire to turn plucky 13-year-old Mei into…a giant red panda.
The film follows all the adventures that stem from that clever idea, many of them rooted in the wildness of not just turning into, again, a giant red panda, but of being a teenager coming of age and all the outsized emotions and obsessions that accompany that. It’s specific, yes, but it’s also so rooted in genuine human experiences that it can’t help but appeal to a very wide audience. But making the PG-rated film did indeed feel like a risk, one Shi eagerly dug into.
So, about those pictures.
Just before Mei “poofs” into her panda self, she gives into a budding crush on a neighborhood boy, drawing pix — basically cute anime, lots of hearts, tons of energy, nothing salacious at all, just the kind of thing no teenager wants to share with anyone — of him in a secret notebook. But when her mom discovers the drawings, it triggers a series of incredibly dramatic events that culminate in panda-poofing.
“It was definitely a risk to tackle that subject of a girl’s sexuality awakening on screen,” Shi said in a recent interview with IndieWire. “But it was so important and funny, and a scene that we couldn’t not put it in the movie. It’s so real. [Puberty] has happened to all of us, every single adult. The challenge was how do we do it in a funny and unexpected way in a Disney movie.”
She added with a laugh, “Sometimes I pinch myself too, because I’m like, ‘Wow, I can’t believe we got away with that.’ Our producer Lindsey Collins jokes that it’s because I bombarded them with so many things. There was just so many elements in there that a couple of key topics and jokes were able to fall through the cracks or something. That was our strategy, I guess.”
The recipe for that so-called bombardment: boy bands, “Booksmart” and “Sailor Moon,” and the knowledge that even her weirdest and craziest ideas would be supported. After all, they had been before.
Shi is no stranger to the Pixar and Disney way of doing things: She first joined the animation giant as an intern in 2011, later serving as a storyboard artist on Pixar hits like “Inside Out,” “Incredibles 2,” and “Toy Story 4,” before making her directorial debut with the short “Bao.” And “Bao” was a hit of its own, debuting at the Tribeca Film Festival in April 2018 (naturally, it played in front of “Incredibles 2” when it hit theaters that summer) and ultimately winning the Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film.
Just days after the short’s Tribeca premiere, Shi confirmed she was working on a feature for the animation house, and she credits the success of “Bao” with not only earning her that promotion, but giving her the confidence to do it her way. The short follows a Chinese-Canadian woman who makes a dumpling that magically comes to life as the son she’s always wanted, with a banger of a twist in its final third, one that even Shi worried might be “too dark and too weird” for Pixar. It wasn’t.
“‘Bao’ came from a personal place,” Shi said. “Seeing how audiences received it, how well it did, how people received that super-shocking ending, but still liked the overall story, that really gave me the confidence to utilize a lot of those elements again. I think being able to keep that ending in ‘Bao’ really built up my confidence in making bold choices in storytelling. That’s kind of how I led with ‘Turning Red.’ From the very beginning, [I was] just really trying to not hold back with telling the story about a girl going through puberty. We’re going to go there. From the very first version, it had pads, it had puberty, it had the weird boy crushes and drawings. All of that was in the very first version.”
Shi loves coming-of-age stories, and she said she took inspiration from a handful of recent hits, like Olivia Wilde’s “Booksmart” and Greta Gerwig’s “Lady Bird,” both of which include complex and humorous explorations of the relationships between both close friends and mothers and daughters.
Shi’s own childhood obsessions are also a large part of the film’s look and feel. “I grew up watching so much Japanese anime, and reading manga that was written and drawn by women,” she said. “‘Sailor Moon’ is about middle school girls who saved the world, but they were also best friends and they went to the mall together. That was so, so cool. We tried to capture that girl friendship spirit in our movie. ‘Fruits Basket’ and ‘Ranma 1/2’ are two hilarious animes that were created by women about human animal transformation mixed with high school romance, comedy, drama. I was super inspired by all of that, that awesome teen girl energy that I really was wanting to put on the big screen.”
As for the boy bands, while Shi admits to being “more of an NSYNC girl,” she wasn’t as obsessed with the dulcet tones of all-singing, all-dancing groups as her animated stars, but she recognized their inherent value to giving the film its special pop. “I was that obsessive nerdy girl who focused all of her energy and passion into one thing with her friends,” Shi said. “It just seemed like such a fun and of-the-era opportunity for Mei and her friends to be obsessed with this boy band.”
The “Turning Red” team tapped some heavy-hitters to craft a trio of songs for the film’s boy band, 4*Town (even though there are five of them), in the form of sibling hitmakers Billie Eilish and Finneas O’Connell (O’Connell also voices a member of the band, along with Jordan Fisher, Josh Levi, Topher Ngo, and Grayson Villanueva).
The pair wrote three songs for the film, each of which needed to convey a different vibe, as cooked up by Shi and and her co-writer Julia Cho.
“We were using temporary music for the movie at first, but we knew exactly what each song needed to be,” Shi said. “The first song [‘Nobody Like U’] was the confidence booster, we need a song that Mei’s friends can sing to her when she’s feeling really, really down about her panda body. The lyrics need to really speak to her and make her feel okay in her body and in herself, to make her love herself again.”
The other two songs had equally specific needs to meet: “1 True Love” is “a super-earnest power ballad about love and wearing your heart on your sleeve,” as Shi explained. Originally, the song was going to play during a now-cut scene in which Mei and Miriam sing the jam to each other, essentially a “friendship love duet.” Instead, Shi said, it “ended up being used for all of the moments in the movie where Mei sees a crush that she really likes. The world gets all fuzzy and bubbly. We play a bit of the song there.”
Then there’s the smash hit that everybody knows, “U Know What’s Up,” which plays during some key scenes, including a massive concert and over a montage that sees Mei and her pals using her panda self to raise money to attend said concert. “Billie and Finneas delivered beyond on all the songs,” she said. “It’s amazing.”
Made over the course of four years and with eight official screenings for Pixar brass, Shi’s ambition and trust in her material meant she didn’t preemptively hold anything back in the film. This is exactly what she pitched and wanted to make.
“I knew if we went too far, we’d always have another chance to reel it back,” she said. “I just had that mindset to just shoot for the sun every single time and land on the moon. Or somewhere in the stratosphere. … We were always able to defend a lot of this subject matter and these ideas and jokes, because they were so integral to telling this story about a girl going through puberty. It’s baked into the DNA of the story. It’s like, ‘Well, this is what you guys wanted. This is what you guys green lit.’ You guys green lit a girl going through magical puberty. This is what happens!”
“Turning Red” will be available to stream on Disney+ on Friday, March 11.