Pixar's new film 'Turning Red' marks the moment children become adults

Writer and director Domee Shi creates a transformation story as a metaphor for change

In 'Turning Red', teenager Mei Lee transforms into a giant panda when she gets too excited. Photo: Disney/Pixar
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Over the past couple of decades, Pixar has built a solid reputation as the animation studio that makes children's films for adults to like, too. That’s largely because, beyond the bright colours and slapstick moments that are the mainstay of children’s animation on the big screen, the studio has never been afraid of bringing adult themes to the forefront, even if the alleged intended audience may not be entirely familiar with the issues at hand.

From growing old in 2009’s Up to the childhood loss of a parent in 2020’s Onward, and the tricky subject of death in the same year’s Soul, no subject is too adult for this purveyor of Oscar-winning children's fare.

It should come as no surprise, then, that Turning Red, which is out in UAE cinemas on Thursday, is not quite as infantile as the description suggests. It outlines the tale of a young Chinese-Canadian girl who turns into a giant, fluffy red panda when she gets emotional.

Within minutes of the film's beginning, I was reminded of Neil Jordan’s cult 1984 horror The Company of Wolves, a nightmarish retelling of the Little Red Riding Hood story that uses the transformational nature of werewolves as a far-from-subtle metaphor for the changes that affect us all at some point in our teenage years, as we make that difficult leap from childhood to adulthood.

In Disney and Pixar’s all-new original feature film 'Turning Red', everything is going great for Mei, aged 13, until her unfortunate new reality lands her in awkward situations. Photo: Disney/Pixar

“I was inspired by a lot of these transformation stories — Teen Wolf was maybe the biggest one, so you’re absolutely right with werewolves,” the film's writer and director Domee Shi told The National. “I love the idea of using transformation, natural transformation, as a metaphor for puberty and change, and I was like: ‘Wouldn't it be fun and weird if this if this girl transformed not into not a disgusting, snarly, drooly creature, but into a giant, furry, awkward red panda?’

"To me, that felt like what adolescence was like, all that awkwardness and hairiness and larger than life stuff. Being in a room and knocking stuff over every time you turn around, and that colour, that red colour. All of that in the red panda, to me it just kind of represented puberty.”

This is definitely inspired directly by my own life
Domee Shi, director of Pixar's 'Turning Red'

Shi insists that pandas are even better than werewolves when it comes to metaphors. “I love the fact that she doesn't lose herself when she turns into the panda. That was a big deal for me, and I think animation allows for that in a way that a Teen Wolf maybe doesn’t,” she says.

“We wanted her to feel still like she had the same voice, the same mannerisms, and that was important because it's not to suggest that you become an entirely different person, just that you almost don't recognise yourself even though you're still in there. I think that animation allows for that in a way that maybe live-action doesn't.”

There’s further turmoil in the story of Turning Red as the film’s panda-transforming protagonist Mei, voiced by Rosalie Chang, is the daughter of immigrant parents in the animated Canada of the film, torn between the traditions and culture of her conservative Chinese family and the multicultural western world in which she goes to school.

Rosalie Chiang voices the character Mei Lee in 'Turning Red', which will debut on Disney+ on March 11. Photo: Disney/Pixar

It’s a situation Shi remembers all too well from her own childhood, having left China aged 2 with her parents, to settle in Toronto.

“This is definitely inspired directly by my own life,” she confirms. “Growing up feeling caught between these two worlds of eastern and western cultures, all the things Mei experiences in the movie. She's one way with her mom at home, and another way with her friends at school.

"I think that is definitely a struggle a lot of Asian kids, a lot of immigrant kids, have to go through, and my hope with making this movie is for all global audiences to relive the cringiness of being 13, but also specifically for those kids that are struggling with being in between these two worlds, and having to honour their family and their home life versus trying to be themselves outside that. I want to tell them that it's going to be messy, but it'll be OK.”

If you’ve ever found yourself in a similar cultural tug-of-war, Turning Red may be the "not-actually-a-kids-film-at-all" film you’ve been looking for.

“There's no black or white answer, and no one's going to make you have to choose between one or the other, but it might always be kind of a push and pull for you," says Shi. "It is for me, and I think it is for a lot of Asian kids and immigrant kids. But you're going to be OK. It’s just part of life, so embrace that messy ambiguity of it all.”

Turning Red is in UAE cinemas from Thursday, March 10

Updated: March 07, 2022, 1:04 PM