Domee Shi’s ‘Turning Red’ is a significant Pixar addition

The promotional poster for "Turning Red" (2022) is pictured. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Pixar has become one of the most renowned animation studios of the modern day. Pixar has continuously pushed the boundaries of animation; however, they have been criticized for their lack of diversity. Out of their 25 films, few have centered on female protagonists, and Pixar had only once before featured an Asian lead. With their most recent film, “Turning Red” (2022), Pixar finally brings representation to a community that has been frequently underrepresented in both Pixar and Disney films while also bringing much-needed female representation behind the camera.

“Turning Red” makes Pixar history in more ways than one. “Turning Red” is the first Pixar feature-length film directed solely by a woman, Domee Shi. The film also features an all-female leadership team, with women holding the titles of producer, visual effects supervisor, production designer and associate producer. Prior to directing “Turning Red,Shi won an Oscar for her animated short film, “Bao” (2018). In both works, Shi draws on her Asian Canadian identity for inspiration and succeeds in telling authentic, beautiful films that many members of the Asian community — and outside of it — can connect with.

Simply put, “Turning Red” is a story about a complex mother-daughter relationship. Set in Toronto in 2002, Meilin Lee is the daughter of Ming Lee and has spent all 13 years of her life working to make her parents proud of her and be the perfect daughter. As Meilin matures, experiences puberty and tries to discover her own identity, she struggles with how her desires conflict with what her mother expects from her. On top of beginning her teenage years, which is hard enough for anyone, whenever Meilin gets too stressed or excited, she turns into a giant red panda.

The red panda resembles Meilin at her truest self, when she is her most vulnerable, chaotic and emotional. The panda transformation also resembles puberty and how when a young person goes through puberty, they have to work through a mix of uncomfortable changes and situations in order to come to terms with who they are becoming, both physically and emotionally. Pixar films rarely tackle topics that could make viewers ‘uncomfortable,’ which is why “Turning Red” is refreshing and proves that Pixar is moving in a more open, diverse direction.

Because “Turning Red” is an animated film, every color, shape and movement was meticulously discussed before selection, which leads to a stunning showcase of art and symbolism. While a majority of the characters and settings are ‘chunky cute’ — a term coined by the film’s creators in which everything is shorter and rounder, leading to a more playful atmosphere — Ming Lee defies that artistic style. With broad, sharp shoulders and a slender build, Ming’s power and influence is not to be underestimated, and the juxtaposition between her and Meilin in their scenes together emphasize the power dynamic between them. The city of Toronto is also animated in a way that feels almost utopian; with vibrant, soft colors, the city appears welcoming and inviting.

When Shi started this film, she was very clear in making her story specific. The exact setting of Toronto in 2002 was chosen by Shi for a reason: It was a nostalgic period for Shi herself. To stay true to her Canadian roots, Shi drew inspiration for both the animation and voice cast from Canada. Some of Toronto’s iconic landmarks are featured, including the SkyDome and CN Tower, as well as small nods to Toronto that any Toronto native will recognize, such as the Daisy Mart and Meilin riding the Rocket, the nickname given to the trains on Toronto’s transit system. Shi also paid tribute to Canadians in the cast, as she cast the legendary Asian-Canadian Sandra Oh to voice Ming Lee. Alongside Oh is another Canadian native, Maitreyi Ramakrishnan, who is best known for her work on Mindy Kaling’s “Never Have I Ever” (2020–).

The mother-daughter storyline is the heart of “Turning Red” and likely the part most Asian viewers will be able to relate to. The film opens with Meilin saying, “The number one rule in my family: Honor your parents.” This concept of filial piety is still greatly rooted in Chinese culture today. “Turning Red” works to show that as one grows up and starts to become their own person, their dreams might conflict with their parent’s expectation of them, but one can still honor their parents and be their true self as long as there is communication and understanding.

“Turning Red” earns its place as a Pixar classic and one of the most groundbreaking Pixar films to date. With animation that feels new to the audience yet maintains the classic Pixar aesthetic alongside an original story that brings attention to an underrepresented group in film, “Turning Red” shows that Pixar is working to be a more innovative studio dedicated to telling new and relatable stories.


Summary

With women both featured in the story and behind the scenes, as well as an original story about those of Asian descent, "Turning Red" is the film Pixar needs in a time where representation is so important.

4.5 stars
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