The year 2002 was a perfect year for bops, including Outcast’s “Hey Ya.” Then there was Beyonce’s No. 1 hit “Bootylicious,” which served as the perfect needle drop for the new animated film “Turning Red,” directed by Domee Shi, set in early 2000s Toronto.
Pixar’s latest coming-of-age tale, which streams on Disney Plus starting Friday, revolves around Meilin “Mei” Lee, a 13-year-old who adores the biggest boy band on the planet, 4*Town. She is amazed to wake up one morning and find herself transformed into a giant red panda each time she gets excited or stressed. Shi says Destiny Child’s “Bootylicious” worked perfectly for the transformational moment in Mei’s journey. “She’s finally getting comfortable with her body and celebrating it. It’s about confidence,” Shi says, “It was also funny to see a giant red panda dancing to that song.”
The vocal cast includes Sandra Oh as Mei’s overbearing mother, Ming Lee, while newcomer Rosalie Chiang voices Mei.
Mei is the typical teen, bubbly around her friends and the obedient daughter when she’s at home. Straddling Western culture and family traditions, Shi wanted to dive into the mother-daughter perspective. “That relationship is so complicated. You’re so close with your mom, but you also fight with her the most. At least that was my experience,” Shi admits, and that contradicting emotion made for an interesting story. Adds Shi, “I wanted to also explore the nuances of an immigrant kid, of an Asian kid and their relationship with their parent.”
Growing up is complicated for the sometimes-rebellious Mei, who’s dying to see 4*Town in concert against her mother’s wishes. Shi wanted to reflect the struggle of Asian kids. “She genuinely loves her family, loves her mom and loves spending time with her. She wants to honor her family and her parents, but she also wants to embrace this messy side of herself.”
Shi recruited Billie Eilish and her brother Finneas to pen the original songs performed by 4*Town, bringing Eilish’s modern pop chops to tunes with a circa-2002 feel.
A tender moment comes early in the film as the family is about to have dinner, making dumplings, while a Chinese soap opera plays in the background. It also happens to be one of Shi’s favorite scenes because it was a snapshot into a typical Chinese immigrant household, and it was a moment shown through a very culturally specific lens Says Shi, “You just don’t see a lot of that in Western movies and media.” Shi admits she also geeked out at Mei’s dad cooking. “To highlight the fact that Chinese dads cook as much as Chinese moms and now people know that was cool.”
Shi turned to another favorite of hers, “Sailor Moon,” for further visual influences, seen in the color palette of the film and in the friendship between Mei and her friends. “They’re all middle school girls who love each other and fight bad guys together,” Shi says. As a fan of anime, including “Ranma ½,” based on Rumiko Takahashi’s work, she wanted to incorporate the genre’s facial features and expression techniques. “I love how they push and exaggerate facial features and expressions to make the audience feel what the characters are feeling. For our movie about a girl that experiences big emotions, it felt like the perfect style to utilize to express everything that Mei is feeling – her hurt and ultimate embarrassment.”
Shi wanted to show landmarks like Toronto’s CN Tower, but also communicate the city’s distinctive aspects. From the classroom to the streets to crowd scenes, Shi and her animation team worked to show the city’s diversity. “It is really hard to do in animation because we have to build and shade and design every single character in the background. The more variation we have the more expensive and complicated it is, but I think our team knocked out of the park and you feel like this is like truly a multicultural city when you watch the movie,” say Shi.