September 27, 2023

by Diana Cheng
AAP Film and Arts Writer

“Turning Red”, a CGI animated feature about a Chinese Canadian girl coming of age and discovering a giant of a family secret is a game changer for Disney’s Pixar Studios. It is the first feature to be helmed solely by a woman director. With that, Domee Shi and her all-female creative leadership team has shattered the glass ceiling for women working in the animated film industry.

The heroine of the feature, Meilin Lee, or Mei, discovers a family trait she has inherited as she turns thirteen. It used to be an asset in fighting off invading enemies in her ancestral village, but now has become a most inconvenient liability: she bursts into a giant red panda when her emotions get out of hand. While fluffy and cute, Mei the Red Panda can also be as destructive as a superhero turned bad, an apt metaphor for duality not just for an adolescent’s disposition but for human of all ages.

Fulfilling the wishes of her mother by being a dutiful daughter and a perfect student all her life, the sudden appearing of the red panda as she comes of age awakens Mei to the fact that she needs to accept the whole of her true self, the good and the bad, the admirable and the foible, warts and all.

Back in the 1990’s, the Walt Disney Animation Studios had started creating culturally based animated features. “Aladdin” explores a whole new world of Middle-Eastern sights and sounds; the Lion King presents the African landscape and its language; “Mulan” brings a famous Chinese legend to the screen. In more recent years, “Moana” tells the tales of the Pacific Islands; and currently, “Encanto”, celebrates the Columbian heritage and now, its Oscar win. 

Pixar Animation Studios is Disney’s younger animation powerhouse. Its feature, “Coco”, which showcases Mexican music and culture, won the Best Animated Feature Oscar in 2018. That same year, another Pixar title also won an Oscar. Maybe less known to the general audience, but Chinese Canadians have been spreading the word: Domee Shi of Toronto has grasped the Oscar for Best Animated Short Film with her work “Bao”.

Starting at Pixar in 2011, Shi rose to the challenge from a storyboard artist to writing and directing her own animated short. In literal translation, the title “Bao” means 包 (same sound), a Chinese bun. It is a story about an empty-nester mom getting a second chance for motherhood when a bao she’s preparing comes alive. With “Turning Red”, Pixar’s 25th full feature, Shi has become the first sole, female director of a Pixar film, and a woman of Asian heritage to do that.

Born in Chongqing, China, Shi immigrated to Canada with her parents when she was two years-old. They settled in Toronto where she grew up and later received her animation training from Sheridan College, one of the top animation schools in the world. The main character Mei Lee is in part based on Shi’s own growing up experience in Toronto.

California born Rosalie Chiang lends her voice to Mei, Sandra Oh her overprotective, helicopter mom Ming, and Orion Lee, gentle dad Jin. Other voices come from a cast of diverse cultural background, enhancing the authenticity of the characters. 

Adding to the sleigh of talents are three original songs by Grammy and now Oscar winning sibling duo Billie Eilish and Finneas. The catchy tunes with their self-affirming lyrics are likely to go far. Film score by Oscar winning composer Ludwig Göransson adds in some dramatic thrills.

A female version of the Incredible Hulk, this turning red instead of green makes a timely opportunity for Mei. She is quick to make use of her secret power and turn it into an entrepreneurial asset, making money to buy the expensive tickets for her and her three buddies to see their idol boy band 4*Town coming to Toronto to perform live at the Skydome.

The CGI animation frames the city skyline with a candy-like hue, compatible with the magical realism the feature exudes. The fusion of mythical elements and modern-day content makes “Turning Red” a unique creation. Prominent landmarks like the CN tower, the Skydome, now Rogers Centre, and the street car that runs along Chinatown mix realism with fantasy.

The main objective of a culturally-based film is representation. An issue arises however soon as the film begins. Mei is set living in Toronto Chinatown inside a family-run temple honoring her ancestor Sun Yee. It looks more like stereotyping rather than representation. I can’t help but wonder how many youngsters of Chinese descent in North America grow up in a temple or have even entered one? Further, how many of them live in Chinatown?

Kudos to Shi, the film quickly turns the specific into a broader appeal with Mei’s perky and at times, self-deprecating humor. Indeed, even for a girl growing up in a Chinatown temple has to deal with the nuisance of puberty, yes, menstruation, or, dream of seeing her pop idols live on stage. Regardless of boy or girl, which teenager is not petrified by the appearance of a helicopter parent hiding behind a tree stalking them outside their classroom? And which teenager would not long for loyal friendship? 

Shi redirects the specific in “Turning Red” into the universal effectively, raising it above racial and cultural boundaries. This new page for Pixar could well be a stimulant for diversity and women to flourish in animation filmmaking.

“Turning Red” and a special background documentary “Embracing the Panda” are now streaming on Disney+. 


Contact Diana Cheng at [email protected], on Twitter @Arti_Ripples or her book and film blog Ripple Effects