(Photo by Mike Marsland/Getty Images)
Domee Shi has worked for some of the biggest Pixar films of the last few years, joining the studio with Inside Out as a storyboard artist, helping bring the story of a girl whose emotions get out of control to life. In 2018, she became the first woman to direct a short film for Pixar with the heartbreaking (but also heartwarming) tale of a Chinese-Canadian woman who eats her metaphorical steamed bun of a son in Bao, which won her the Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film.
Now, Shi is making her feature directorial debut with Turning Red, a delightful animated film aimed squarely at reminding audiences of their awkward teenage years (or showing the young’uns what awaits them). Set in Toronto at the turn of the century, the film follows 13-year-old Chinese-Canadian Mei Lee, who has spent her life doing everything she can to keep her mother happy, until she one day discovers that she magically turns into a giant red panda whenever she experiences strong emotions. Perfectly capturing the awkwardness, the pain, the embarrassment, the horniness, the fun, and the musical obsessions of early adolescence, Turning Red marks a turning point in Pixar history.
Ahead of the film’s debut on Disney+, Shi talks to Rotten Tomatoes about her Five Favorite Films, which reveal a variety of genres and stories. She describes why she’s drawn to genre-mashups, how she captured the specifics of the teenage girl experience (like an obsession with mermaids), and what easter eggs Pixar fans can look forward to.
Spirited Away (2001)
That’s just my favorite film period. Not just animation. I just identify so much with Chihiro and her struggles with being in this magical world of animation which is so rich. Also Haku is so pretty! It’s just a great fantasy. It’s the perfect movie.
The Lion King (1994)
The Lion King is the movie I always go back to and rewatch at least once a year. The music is just incredible, and I just love the drama of Shakespeare through hot lions. It’s just so fun and unexpected and cool. And I think it was like one of the films that really got me into animation, which is also one of the first movies I watched in theaters as a kid.
Mean Girls (2004)
Mean Girls is a movie I find myself quoting like every almost every day with my friends. It’s so funny, and so specific to the clickiness and the struggles of being a teen girl and growing up in the West. And there’s so many memorable characters, including one of the best villains in Regina George. It’s great.
Shaun of the Dead (2004)
Shaun of the Dead was my first Edgar Wright film and I’ve just been so inspired by his filmmaking and his sense of humor. And I just love how, in that movie, he blends horror, drama, and comedy so effortlessly. I always rewatch it every Halloween.
Shaolin Soccer (2001)
I think this was also the first Stephen Chow movie I ever watched. And I’m also really inspired by him as a filmmaker and his combining of kung fu and action and comedy and anime into live action.
Rafael Motamayor for Rotten Tomatoes: It seems like you really enjoy films that combine a lot of ideas into one package, which you also do with Turning Red. How was it for you to balance all these ideas into one film?
Domee Shi: I think from the very beginning I wanted the film to feel different, because our protagonist is not your usual protagonist in a movie. She’s a dorky, Chinese-Canadian girl living in the early 2000s, so we really wanted to design the world to feel like how she would see it, to capture this Asian tween, fever dream-like look for the film.
I was really inspired by ’90s and early 2000s anime because those are a huge influence on me just artistically. And as a lover of animation, it just felt like anime was the perfect style to help us express all of Mei’s big emotions, because anime is so expressive. You always know immediately how a character feels; they have really exaggerated reactions, which helps the audience feel what Mei feels. It was also a fun challenge, because I don’t think I have seen that blend of anime and 3D animation done super successfully before, so it was a fun challenge for the crew at Pixar to figure out how to make these two elements work together to support Mei’s story.
How was it to portray a different kind of story within the Pixar world, this unapologetically teenage girl story?
Shi: It’s in the spirit of Pixar films to always welcome you into a world that you’re familiar with. And I think for our movie, we really wanted to welcome you to the world of a tween girl’s mind, and it was just a delight. I got a sick pleasure out of being able to share all of these embarrassing and specific details about tween girls. A lot of male members on the crew had no idea that it was a thing that a lot of girls went through like a mermaid phase. One of my favorite scenes is with Mei under her bed going into a horny drawing spiral. And so many female artists on the film could identify with that — male artists too, but not a lot of people knew that girls had these feelings. For me, the inspiration for making this movie is to give it to that 13-year-old me who was struggling through all of these weird emotions and bodily changes and fighting with her mom every day, and just let her know that you’re not the only one that’s going through this. Growing up is messy, but you just have to embrace it and laugh at it and celebrate it.
I noticed what seemed like a reference to the Mamoru Hosoda film The Girl Who Leapt Through Time. Was that intentional?
Shi: I literally had an interview with him a couple of days ago and that was just the most amazing experience. Mamoru Hosoda has been a huge inspiration for me. I remember watching The Girl Who Leapt Through Time in college, loving these stories about these spunky girls going through magical stories. So he’s definitely been a huge inspiration for me, and you can see it throughout the movie. That’s kind of why I love anime so much, because there’s a lot of variety in the stories and the protagonists, and they don’t always have to be superheroes trying to save the world.
Pixar movies always have a lot of Easter eggs. Can you tease where fans should keep their eyes out for in the film?
Shi: We have the classic Pixar Easter eggs. There is definitely a Luxo ball, a Pizza Planet truck, A113, I think those are near the last third of the movie. But also, each Pixar film gives an Easter egg shout out to the next film, so there’s a Lightyear Easter egg somewhere, I think in the first half of the movie. And we also give some shout out Easter eggs to the SparkShorts Purl and Burrow, but I don’t want to give it away, so you just have to keep watching the movie over and over again to see where they are.
Turning Red premieres on Disney+ on March 11, 2022.
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