Turning Red represents some huge firsts for a company as storied as Pixar: it’s the first feature film to be set in Canada, and the first to feature a female director! So, when we got the chance to talk to the Oscar winning director behind it, as well as a member of Canada’s acting royalty, we jumped on it. What’s more- they’re both Canadian!
Set in Toronto in the early 2000s, Turning Red doubles as both a love letter to the city and director Domee Shi’s childhood. Immigrating to Canada at an early age, Shi spent a few months in Newfoundland before her family moved to Toronto, where she spent the vast majority of her youth.
“You don’t see Toronto featured in a lot of movies in America, and it’s really an amazing opportunity to showcase the city that I grew up in and all of its diversity and colour.”
Which makes the springtime setting even more stunning. As seen through the eyes of the movie’s protagonist, Meilin Lee, Toronto is shown in its best light, as a vibrant metropolis featuring everything from Trinity Bellwoods Park to Chinatown to the SkyDome. Which, of course, is now the Rogers Centre.
“It’s really grounded in a specific and special time and place. Springtime felt the most ‘Meilin Lee’… we could use fresh, pink blues and purples, and really make this feel like a really different movie.”
That’s not all that’s different about the movie’s aesthetic, though. Shi’s love of anime absolutely shines in the movie, from sight gags to entire sequences. And while it was “a challenge” to incorporate, it “made sense to push the feel of the world to show how an excitable, nerdy, 13-year-old girl sees things and feels things.”
And, one amazing example of this vision comes from a very relatable scene. Doing homework in her room, Mei’s mind begins to wander, and she soon finds herself drawing images of an emerging crush.
“That was ripped directly from my adolescence, I had that sketchbook that was hidden under my bed. And to this day my parents have never found out about it (whoops, sorry for sharing). That was such a funny a specific scene, and if you ask any adult female artist, they will have a moment similar to that in their past.”
Fans of Pixar probably know that Shi is also behind one of the most touching short films of the past decade- Bao. Not only did it win her an Academy Award, becoming the first woman of colour to do so, but it laid the foundation for exploring that mother-child relationship that is so prominent in Turning Red.
“It was fun, but also kind of cringey, to go back in my own memory and dig up stuff that I thought I buried, or was too embarrassing in the moment to bring back. But, I was excited to do it too- seeing people’s visceral reactions to the ending of Bao gave me this hunger to kind of shock and surprise audiences again with a feature film. I felt like I barely scratched the surface in Bao, and the Asian mother-daughter relationship is so complex and juicy, and there’s so much love in there but there’s also so much conflict, guilt, manipulation… it was begging for a movie to be made about it.”
Well, not only was the movie made (thankfully), but one of the biggest names in acting signed on to play Mei’s mother- Ming. Sandra Oh needs little introduction, the Asian-Canadian-American actress has been a shining star for, quite literally, decades, earning dozens of awards and nominations for her roles in both TV and movies.
What’s more, the plot of the movie really resonated with her, as both the daughter of immigrants to Canada, and as a trailblazer not just in her family, but for Asian actors in North America.
“I love that Mei and her group of friends are unabashedly smart, and entrepreneurial, and ambitious… that, I feel, is the type of real, girl character that I want to see. That I know that I was and I can relate to. So it’s great that we get to spend an entire movie with her as the heroine.”
However, Oh’s character, Ming, is in no uncertain terms a ‘tiger mom’. But, what’s truly interesting for Turning Red is the depth of her character, as a “hypervigilant” and “hyper protective” mother juggling her own values with the behaviour of her daughter.
“Maybe Ming doesn’t yet understand [Mei’s perspective], but she does learn that even though she’s not making the same choices as her daughter, ultimately, she respects her daughter’s choice and loves her for it. Ming’s character does grow by the end of it.”
There’s even more to that ‘tiger mom’ trope, though. It might be the first thing that comes to mind, but it’s certainly not a simple summary.
“[Ming’s character] is not a stereotype- it goes absolutely beyond the ‘tiger mom’, which I find to be limiting because you get to see Ming’s humour, her wackiness, and also her pain. There’s a beautiful moment where you get to see, and Mei gets to see, her mother’s pain and regret. Because it’s impossible to see your parent as a (laughs) human being.”
That’s really what sets Turning Red apart not only from the rest of Pixar’s lauded canon, but from ‘coming of age’ movies in general. By diving into Shi’s past, the movie opens up a whole new direction for what movies like this should be.
As Oh puts it: “It’s a celebration of the story itself, because it’s extremely original, and to really explore a coming of age story from a very specific filmmaker’s point of view, you realize how enjoyable , how deep, and how funny, a different point of view is. And I’m happy to be a part of that.”
And as for Shi? Well, her wish for the movie speaks exactly to that point.
“My hope is that we’re kind of redefining what ‘universal’ stories kind of look and feel like. In the same way where growing up I could see myself and identify with stories about boys, or set in Europe, and I could still care about the characters, my hope is that with this movie we are able to connect with global audiences but in this super specific kind of way, with this Chinese Canadian protagonist. Growing up is hard, and it’s messy, and we have to embrace the messiness that comes with it.”
Well, we’ve seen the movie, and we have to say that not only does it accomplish this, but it does so triumphantly. Turning Red will premiere exclusively on Disney+ this Friday, March 11th, around the world. Our advice? Watch it with some friends, or even your family (if you’re feeling brave) and get ready for an amazing story.