How Turning Red Opens the Door for More Asian Representation at Pixar

Turning Red's clever coming-of-age tale brings the Asian immigrant experience into focus.

Turning Red
Photo: Pixar

There has never been a coming-of-age story quite like Pixar’s Turning Red before, and that’s because it comes from a very personal place. 

Set in 2002, the movie follows Torontonian teen Meilin Lee (Rosalie Chiang). She loves her mom, Ming (Sandra Oh), and wants nothing more than to live up to her expectations. But she’s going through a lot of big changes that threaten to throw her off of her life’s course. Namely, a curse that transforms her into a red panda whenever she has an emotional outburst.

“I was Mei in the early 2000s Toronto. I was that dorky, 13-year-old girl,” says director Domee Shi (Bao) tells Den of Geek. Apart from its supernatural elements, the movie is based on Shi’s experience growing up in Canada, and struggling to relate to her immigrant mother as she came into her own as an adolescent. “I thought I had my whole life under control and was my mom’s good little daughter. And then…BOOM. Magical puberty hit.”

Mei’s red-panda flare-ups are a clever way for the film to address menstruation — a subject left generally untouched in coming-of-age movies — in a way that feels both fantastical and honest to Shi’s experience. “It was horrifying,” she recalls. “I was bigger, hairier. My emotions were all over the place, I was fighting with my mom all the time. Making this movie was my attempt to unpack what was happening at the time. We were able to add a lot of magic and embellishment to the movie to make puberty more fun for the masses!”

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The relationship between Mei and her mom is imbued with an emotional complexity that was important for Shi to convey.

“[Our story is] different from a lot of Western stories, where it’s more black and white,” Shi explains. “In those stories, the parent is this militant obstacle from the very beginning and the kid wants to break free and be rebellious and just wants to emancipate themselves from their parents. But Mei, like a lot of us, truly loves her mom. She truly wants to honor her family. But her friends are pulling her away, the red panda is pulling her away. And she doesn’t want that, so it’s more of a struggle for her.”

To illustrate Mei’s explosive inner-struggle, Shi and the artists at Pixar employed an anime-inspired art style, with dramatic zooms, exaggerated poses, and poppy flourishes that heighten the emotion. “I grew up watching so much anime and manga,” Shi says. “Disney-Pixar and anime are the two foundations of me, and they’ve inspired and influenced me so much as an artist and filmmaker. So it felt natural that we would lean into that style when we started making this movie. It also felt like the best way to really make the audience feel what Mei is feeling at any given moment. Anime is just so colorful and expressive, and it really exaggerates everything on screen. I’ve always loved that, and I’ve always wanted to see what that would look like in 3D.”

There was a particularly quirky, glittery tone to the early aughts, when teenage pop stars and boy bands draped in unconscionably shiny outfits ruled the airwaves. To capture the vibe of the time, the team at Pixar hired Finneas and Billie Eilish to write original songs for 4*Town, the movie’s fictional boy band. While Billie quite literally wasn’t alive at the height of the TRL era, and Finneas was just a toddler, the sibling pop duo turned out to be a perfect fit for the film.

“The reason we reached out to them was we felt like they could write lyrics that could speak to Mei and her friends and that generation of teens,” Shi says. “They could make the songs feel like the boys were singing directly to the girls. They had that personal experience.”

Producer Lindsey Collins adds that Billie and Finneas took the gig seriously and immersed themselves in the music of the time. “Listening to them talk about how they came up with the lyrics…they went deep,” Collins says. “They researched what made those lyrics so great. I think Finneas, as a producer, takes that really seriously, tapping into what the sound was, what the structure of those songs were.”

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Beyond the catchy songs and eye-popping visuals, Turning Red is a love letter to the children of immigrants and their parents, and the special bond that they share. To immigrate to a new country takes a lot of hard work, which results in lofty expectations for first-generation North Americans, who often want to honor their parents’ sacrifices. 

“So much of our crew are first-generation immigrant kids,” Collins explains. “So much of the story felt real not only to Domee, but to them. It’s that desire to make your parents feel like it was all worth it. The bar [of expectations] is so high out of respect and wanting to be successful because of their parents’ sacrifice.”

There has been a wave of Asian stories coming to the fore in movies and TV over the past year or so, including Shang-Chi, Minari, and Squid Game. Shi feels proud to be one of the emerging voices in the industry. “It feels amazing,” she beams. “Being able to watch movies and TV shows where I can see myself and my family [on screen]…I couldn’t have imagined that when I was Mei’s age. And now the only thing to do is to make sure that it keeps going.”

The fear for many is that Asian stories being told in the mainstream will die down over time. But with studios like Pixar amplifying artists like Shi, there’s hope that the AAPI community will be silenced no longer. Collins reassures that Turning Red will be far from the last time Asians will see representation under the Pixar umbrella. 

“What you’re seeing with Turning Red is the work that started five, six, seven years ago,” she says. “What’s hard is that [behind the scenes] you know that it’s coming, and you want to tell the world, ‘Wait! It’s happening, you just haven’t seen it yet.’ I think what’s coming from Pixar in the next several years…you want to make sure [that Asian representation] keeps going. And it’s going, for sure.”

Turning Red is out on Disney+

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