The new film Turning Red marks a tremendous amount of Pixar “firsts”: It is the first of the animation giant’s movies to take place in Toronto. It is the first to put Asian characters and culture front and centre. It is the first to directly tackle puberty – and possibly the first animated film ever to confront menstruation. But Turning Red’s biggest “first” flex might be just who made it: Domee Shi, the Canadian filmmaker who, with the release of her debut feature, becomes the first woman to solo direct a Pixar film in the company’s storied 36-year history.
Consider these perhaps surprising, completely depressing facts: Of Pixar’s 25 feature films to date, 20 focused on male protagonists (whether human, fish, car or monster), and 23 have been directed by men (2012′s Brave was initially directed by Brenda Chapman ... before she was replaced by Mark Andrews, with the two sharing directing credits).
With Turning Red – directed by a woman, written by women (Shi and playwright Julia Cho), produced by a woman (Lindsey Collins), featuring a story revolving around a mother and daughter – Shi hasn’t so much cracked Pixar’s glass ceiling as she has shattered it into a thousand tiny, shiny CGI pieces.
“When I first joined Pixar in 2011, I was one of a handful of women in the story department, one of four in a group of 30 or 40,” recalls Shi in an interview. “Now, being on a movie with a predominantly female creative leadership in the span of 10 years, that in and of itself is kind of crazy. Especially because it takes five or six years to make a movie here.”
A culture change inside Pixar may have helped: In 2018, chief creative officer John Lasseter resigned after apologizing for workplace “missteps.” But Shi also made herself a force to be reckoned with early in her career inside the Disney-owned studio, with her witty, surprising and not a little subversive short film Bao (also explicitly set in Toronto) winning the Academy Award for Best Animated Short in 2019.
“Pixar is in some ways very much the same, but the fact that this movie is out there now and is so different is because Domee is at the helm of it,” says producer Collins, a Pixar veteran who has been with the company since its early A Bug’s Life days. “It goes back to our core values of trying new things and giving people a platform to tell their stories.”
Shi’s story has deep roots in her own Toronto childhood, in which she grew up under the loving but watchful eyes of Chinese immigrant parents, her father an art teacher and her mother going on to work at the University of Toronto’s physical-therapy department. Come adolescence, though, Shi’s mother became something of an immovable obstacle to the teenager’s unstoppable force. Turning Red’s version of this family tension takes a supernatural bent, following the 13-year-old Mei (voiced by newcomer Rosalie Chiang), who transforms into a giant, fluffy red panda every time she fails to control her emotions. It is a curse/blessing that has been passed down from Mei’s ancestors – and a marker of adulthood which Mei’s mother Ming (Sandra Oh) frantically tries to bring under control.
Even for a studio that has produced films about wordless guardians of the postapocalypse (WALL-E), geriatric adventurers and their talking dogs (Up) and personified emotions (Inside Out), Shi faced a challenge in selling Pixar on a tale about, as she puts it, “magical puberty.”
“I learned early on that humour and weirdness is a good ‘in’ for me. If I can make them laugh at ‘magical puberty,’ then Pixar would let me make this movie,” the director says. “They could see it as this superspecific story about a Chinese-Canadian girl in Toronto, but also the universality of a kid waking up and not understanding what’s going on with their body and emotions and why they’re fighting with their mom every day.”
Shi’s film comes on the heels of a boom in diverse animated storytelling – something that Canadian actress Oh knows first-hand, having recently lent her voice to everything from Disney’s Raya and the Last Dragon to Netflix’s Over the Moon to the Canadian indie animated film Window Horses.
“We are entering a new phase – not an end point but a constant point on the line of history and growth – that is opening up for diverse storytelling of all kinds,” Oh says in an interview. “Having been in this game for a long time, it’s only now that I feel I’ve been able to be part of projects where characters’ full scope with their history and culture is also integrated into the storytelling.”
To that end, Turning Red is a film of incredible cultural detail, from how Ming dresses to how Mei carefully constructs a dumpling to the decor inside the family’s Chinatown home and temple. Shi has crafted a film that is so jammed with specificity that you can’t help but want to freeze-frame every other scene – something that will be quite easy to do, given that Turning Red is premiering not in theatres as originally intended, but on streamer Disney+.
Shi’s feelings on that release strategy are “definitely mixed,” though she at least had an inkling of where things might be headed last year, given that the two Pixar releases before hers (2020′s Soul and 2021′s Luca) also bypassed cinemas for a streaming launch.
“We had every intention for this movie to be seen on the big screen,” she says, “but with the realities of COVID and families not returning to theatres, our priorities shifted to how can we get this movie seen by as many people as possible in the safest way possible.”
However the rest of the world gets to experience the many remarkable “firsts” that Shi’s film represents, then, the better. Because if enough people watch, then audiences will be able to see what Shi’s second (and third, and fourth) glass-shattering films look like, too.
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