With ‘Turning Red,’ a big red panda helps break a glass ceiling

Pixar has a well-deserved reputation for dudes — movies focused on dudes (20 out of 24 feature films), movies directed by dudes (23 of 24), movies written by dudes (50 of 59 screenwriters). But the Disney-owned animation studio has been trying to evolve, largely because many of its own artists have demanded it.

“Get some ladies!” Domee Shi tells me in a recent interview. “Draw from different creative wells!”

Shi, who likens herself to a cat oscillating between “lazy and grrr,” arrived at Pixar as a storyboarding intern in 2011, when she was 22. She stayed on as a staff artist, contributing to films like “Inside Out” and “Incredibles 2.” In 2018, she became the first woman to direct a Pixar short. That eight-minute movie, “Bao,” about a dumpling that comes to life, giving an aging Chinese woman relief from empty nest syndrome, won Shi an Oscar — and put her on course to break an even bigger glass ceiling at Pixar.

The studio’s 25th feature, “Turning Red,” will arrive on Disney+ on March 11. Shi directed it, the first woman in the studio’s 36-year history with that solo distinction. (Brenda Chapman was hired to direct “Brave” [2012], about a defiant princess in ancient Scotland, and retains a credit. But she was fired during production for “creative differences” and was replaced by a dude.)

Moreover, “Turning Red” tells an unabashedly female story — so much so that it reads as a corrective to the Woody-Buzz-Flik-Sully-Mike-Mater-Lightning-Luca bromances in which Pixar has specialized.

Shi’s film is about a Chinese Canadian teenager, Meilin Lee, who finds herself engulfed by the onset of puberty: horniness, whipsawing emotions, her period. When she feels overwhelmed, she “poofs” into a giant red panda. Shi says her screenplay, written with Julia Cho, was influenced by pop culture totems like “Teen Wolf” and “Lizzie McGuire.” Perhaps also toss in the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man from “Ghostbusters,” the comedic group of older women from “Crazy Rich Asians” and Judy Blume’s seminal “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.”

“Did the red peony bloom?” Meilin’s mother, Ming, asks early in the film. Mei, who has locked herself in the bathroom, having “panda-ed” for the first time, can only stammer in response. She’s too busy having a meltdown over a sudden outcropping of fur.

“I wanted Mei to go through a magical puberty transformation, and I couldn’t get the image of a red panda out of my head because it’s so cute and funny, especially if you blow it up to, like, 8 feet tall,” Shi says. “There’s something about the color, too. Red represents your period. It represents being angry, being embarrassed or being very lustful for someone.”

Mei, voiced by newcomer Rosalie Chiang, has boys on the brain, as do her three best friends. Their obsession with a boy band results in a panda-on-panda showdown that is part superhero film climax and part sumo wrestling match. (Shi has referred to the vibe as “Asian tween fever dream.”) Billie Eilish and her brother, Finneas, wrote songs for the film.

“We are walking into that concert girls,” one of Mei’s nerdy friends says, “and walking out women.”

Even in 2022, this is groundbreaking stuff for a major animated movie, especially one from The Walt Disney Co. “It’s a side of teen girls that you never get to see,” Shi says. “We are just as awkward and sweaty and lusty and excited as any boy.”

Domee Shi, the director of 'Turning Red,' is the first woman filmmaker with sole directing credit on a Pixar feature. | JESSICA CHOU / THE NEW YORK TIMES
Domee Shi, the director of ‘Turning Red,’ is the first woman filmmaker with sole directing credit on a Pixar feature. | JESSICA CHOU / THE NEW YORK TIMES

About a decade ago, Disney and Pixar started to routinely showcase different cultures, races and ethnicities. The success of “Big Hero 6” (2014) and “Moana” (2016) led to diverse films like “Coco,” “Raya and the Last Dragon,” “Soul” and “Encanto.” Some of those same movies continued to break down gender stereotypes by depicting bold, brainy women who didn’t need a man’s love to make them whole. (Credit to “Brave” for fostering that change.) Pixar also began to embrace progressive storytelling in its short films, most prominently with “Out,” about a man who decides to stop hiding that he is gay.

But adolescent sexuality and the biological changes that come with it have remained a third rail. Some slight innuendo? Maybe. Anything more might spook conservative parents and threaten Disney’s family friendly brand.

“How do I sneak this through?” Shi recalls thinking before one pitch meeting with senior Walt Disney Studios executives. “How do I sell this and get old white men who’ve never experienced this before excited about this and wanting to, like, see more of it?”

Disney, which, like other Hollywood studios, had been espousing female empowerment in response to the #MeToo revolution, put its money where its mouth was: In spring 2018, the company gave Shi a budget of roughly $175 million to tell her story, along with the backing of its merchandising and marketing divisions.

“I felt like they were always in my corner, even if they sometimes were, like, whaaat?” Shi says.

At the time, Pixar was in turmoil. John Lasseter, the studio’s chief creative officer, had been placed on leave following complaints about inappropriate workplace behavior. Others blasted Pixar for sidelining women and people of color. Lasseter apologized for “missteps” and resigned in June 2018.

Pixar filmmaker Pete Docter (“Up,” “Inside Out”) was handed the studio’s creative reins, which was fortuitous for Shi, since Docter had helped shape her unconventional “Bao.”

The short has an offbeat ending that is meant to symbolize the all-consuming love of a parent: The older woman abruptly eats the dumpling, little legs and all. It was the ending that Shi wanted all along, but she had chickened out when first pitching the story to her bosses. “I worried that eating the dumpling was too dark and weird and confusing and totally not something Pixar would go for,” she says. So she pitched a safer option.

“Pete was in that pitch meeting,” Shi recalls, “and he stood up and said, ‘Wait, no, that is not the version you told me about a couple weeks ago.’ He turned to the group and said, ‘Her original ending was really cool and weird and shocking.’”

Shi was allowed to repitch, this time with her idea intact. “I think because of that experience it gave me the confidence to not be afraid to try bold, weird and shocking things in the stories I want to tell — to not censor myself,” she says. (“Domee knows that surprise is something we all crave in stories,” Docter says in an email. “We don’t want to be able to predict where things are going. And with Domee, I find that is often the case — both in her work, and as a person!”)

“Bao” won the 2019 Oscar for best animated short. In her acceptance speech, Shi implored “all the nerdy girls out there who hide behind their sketchbooks” to tell their stories. “You’re going to freak people out,” she said, “but you’ll probably connect with them, too.”

“Turning Red” has already stirred both reactions. On Twitter, people have been celebrating Mei’s story as long overdue. “Finally, my anxious Asian girl representation,” one user wrote. The Pixar film has also sparked a wider conversation about how periods are portrayed by Hollywood in general. (Usually with a fair amount of shame and disgust.)

But there has also been blowback, with a mostly male contingent of animation fans attacking the film for its anime-inspired character design; many of those comments have a misogynistic undertone. “You just don’t like the fact that teen girls are getting something that’s catered to THEM,” one person clapped back.

Disney’s decision to largely bypass theaters in favor of Disney+ has also created a swirl of tension. Shi’s film will be offered for free to Disney+ subscribers, leading some fans to conclude that Disney does not believe that “Turning Red” merits a theatrical release. (“Luca” and “Soul,” both from Pixar, got the same treatment.) Disney cited the lingering coronavirus threat as the reason for its decision.

“It was obviously made for theaters,” Shi says. “At the same time, all of my favorite movies when I was growing up were ones I watched on VHS. I’d rewind my favorite parts and watch those again and again.”

Shi was an only child. Her parents immigrated to Toronto from China when she was a toddler. Her father, an art teacher, helped instill a love for animation; she was vice president of her high school anime club. Her mother kept the home. Around age 13, Shi and her mother started to lock horns. “I was slowly going into this Western culture world, and that was very different from her,” Shi says, “and I could feel that rift happening, but not wanting it to happen, but, at the same time, I did want it to happen.”

That push-pull lies at the heart of “Turning Red.” The movie is about puberty, but it’s also about what girls inherit from their mothers. Ming wants to pass complete emotional control on to her daughter, notes Lindsey Collins, who produced the film. But Mei has to decide whether to disobey her mother and let her “inner beast” be seen.

“Girls and women are always judged for not controlling their emotions — ugh, she’s so emotional,” Collins says. “I love that we have a main character who is learning over time that she doesn’t have to push emotions away or get rid of them to be considered a good girl or a good woman. The movie is ultimately about being able to own your emotions. Own ’em!”

Shi’s relationship with her father is not reflected in “Turning Red,” but Shi says he was the one who kept pushing her to pursue a career at Pixar, even after the studio initially rejected her application, when she was a junior at Sheridan College in suburban Toronto. “No pain, no gain” was his mantra.

But breaking into the animation industry boys’ club was daunting. “It felt like you had to know a guy who knew a guy,” Shi says. “It can still feel like that, but less so, I hope.”

“Turning Red” drives home that message. Mei’s family operates a temple. It was built to “honor our ancestors,” Ming explains while giving a tour.

Mei pointedly interjects.

“And not just the dudes, either,” she says.

© 2022 The New York Times Company

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