“A Chinese Canadian tween undergoes magical puberty and turns into a giant red panda.”
As far as elevator pitches go, it’s not exactly “‘Jaws’ in space” or “snakes on a plane.” But that highly specific logline is the one that Domee Shi used to persuade Pixar to greenlight her feature directorial debut, some half a decade ago when the then-20-something was a budding storyboard artist on the studio’s Emeryville campus.
Shi’s film, “Turning Red,” delivers on every bit of that premise, focusing on a confidently nerdy Toronto girl named Mei and her loving yet strict mother, Ming, whose perfectly ordered lives are thrust into chaos by Mei’s sudden transformation. The film was released last spring, and immediately notched a number of milestones for the studio: the first Pixar feature solely directed by a woman, the first Pixar feature with all-female creative leads, and only the second Pixar feature directed by a person of Asian descent. But the particulars of Shi’s identity aside, it also represented the emergence of a singular new voice within the celebrated studio, and everything from its cultural specificity, to its animation style — impressionistic, frantically paced, anime-influenced — to its openness in addressing the messiness of early adolescence (from menstruation and mother issues to the suggestion that a tween girl’s love of a particular boy band might have some extra-musical motivations) felt both of a piece with the Pixar tradition and something invigoratingly new.
“From the beginning, we were going to be touching on all the awkward, cringey, embarrassing moments of tweenhood in this movie,” says the 33-year-old Shi, who is receiving Variety’s Creative Impact in Animation Award on Oct. 6. “That was the initial pitch, that’s what we all signed up for, and so I think we just committed to that. What I love about Pixar is that we take a lot of creative risks. Sometimes they work, sometimes they don’t, but that’s what makes our films so unique.”
Indeed, as left-field as it reads on paper, Mei’s panda metamorphosis serves as a perfect metaphor for the hormonal ravages of puberty, in which a child suddenly wakes up to find a bigger, smellier, hairier, more emotionally volatile version of herself that she scarcely recognizes in the mirror. Shi was particularly heartened by the responses the film has drawn from women and Asian communities, in particular, although there were a few loud voices on the internet who found some of its themes too mature for a Pixar audience.
“I was surprised at how shocked everyone was that we were gonna talk about periods and show pads,” she remembers. “We realized that maybe we were in our own protected bubble up here at Pixar, where we all kind of speak the same language and we all embrace the weird awkward parts of life. But then when you show it to the world you realize, ‘oh yeah, the rest of the world isn’t here.’ And that’s OK. That’s why we make movies like this. To touch on these subjects and normalize them a little bit more.”
Born in Chongquing, China, and raised mostly in Toronto, Shi grew up “watching just as much anime and Miyazaki as I did Disney and Pixar,” drawing and writing stories from a young age. She first exhibited her drawings as fan art on online Harry Potter fan communities, and branched out into homemade animation. After studying at Sheridan College, she landed at Pixar’s internship program, and soon found herself working as a story artist on “Inside Out,” then as a storyboard artist for “The Good Dinosaur” and “Incredibles 2.” Meanwhile she was developing her own dialogue-free short, “Bao,” which traces an older woman’s complicated relationship with an anthropomorphic dumpling in ways that presaged a number of “Turning Red’s” key maternal themes. The short, Shi’s first, won her an Oscar, and by then “Turning Red” was well underway.
Like Pixar’s “Soul” and “Luca” before it, “Turning Red” was initially slated for a theatrical release, but wound up going straight to Disney+ as the business inched back toward normality after COVID lockdowns. Shi admits to some complicated feelings about the release.
“As a film nerd I was definitely disappointed at first. I was like, ‘man, no one’s gonna see the high-res texture on Mei’s sweater!’” she says with a laugh. “But then I paused and thought, ‘you know, sweater texture is really not why people want to watch movies.’
“But with how the pandemic redefined everything, our priorities did shift to how we can get this movie seen by as many people as possible, as safely as possible. And after the movie came out, meeting fans at events, a lot of fans thanked us for releasing it on Disney+, because that was the only way they would’ve been able to watch it. And that led to me thinking about how I developed my own relationship with animation, and how it wasn’t through the theater. It was through VHS tapes. The very first movie my family owned was ‘Aladdin’; my dad bought it for me on VHS and I watched it over and over again. I could pause it, rewind it, watch my favorite parts over and over. It’s almost a more intimate relationship with the viewer.”
Shi does hasten to add that, notwithstanding the studio’s first episodic series, “Win or Lose,” premiering next year, Pixar is still very much in the business of theatrical features. And she would know, having been promoted to creative vice president of the studio last spring, where she now works alongside mentor Pete Docter, Peter Sohn and Dan Scanlon in mapping out the studio’s slate.
“I’m still kind of figuring out my new role — I think I said ‘yes’ to it without fully knowing what it entailed,” she says. But one element of the job she takes extremely seriously is her role as a mentor to the studio’s budding and aspiring directors: “I was not long ago in a similar position, and it’s important to me to help them navigate this crazy process. Because it’s kind of unique to the studio, and it can be very nebulous. Some people sail through development, and some people take a longer time. And every step of the way you’re being bombarded with notes and opinions, and your judgment and your taste are being questioned at every turn. So I just try to help guide these first-timers to sift through the noise and help them remember what was that north star, that initial spark that made you excited about this idea, because it’s easy to get lost in the weeds of this process.”
So how did Shi navigate Pixar’s famously intense creative process, which yielded no fewer than eight different provisional versions of “Turning Red,” as a first-timer? She credits a closeknit creative team, especially production designer Rona Liu (who also worked with Shi on “Bao”), for helping her synthesize influences ranging from “Sailor Moon” and “Ranma ½” to Edgar Wright films to forge “Turning Red’s” distinctive aesthetic and vibe. She also credits Docter, who helped mold the film’s emotional core (“my own personality is a little more reserved…and Pete is just so good at those moments in his own movies”).
And then, of course, there was the fact that the film was such a personal one. Shi’s very first sketch for “Turning Red” — in which a sweaty, overloaded young girl “stomps off to school” while her perfectly poised mother observes from the background — was based on Shi’s memories of her own adolescence, and she acknowledges a sense that “instead of going to therapy, I made a feature film.” She certainly wouldn’t be the first writer-director to do that, and she adds that the experience of making the film, and showing it to her mother, has helped to jumpstart plenty of overdue conversations.
“It wasn’t the whole Hollywood-style scene where after the premiere she turns to me with tears in her eyes and we hug and she says, ‘I love you and I’m proud of you,’” Shi says of her mother’s response. “But I felt that, for sure. Because we never even talked about this sort of stuff, so I do feel like making the movie maybe started that baby step of a conversation of us unpacking our own relationship. I wish it didn’t have to take a whole animated feature film and $200 million dollars, but I think we’re definitely closer.”
However quickly her role at the studio may have changed, Shi is still an animator first and foremost, and she’s already back in development on her directorial follow-up. As one might imagine, she can’t spill too many details about it yet, except to say that she’s “doing research … on YouTube … watching various clips … of cool stuff ….” The one thing she will divulge, however, is that her next feature will not be another purgative exploration of mother-teenager tensions within immigrant communities.
“I definitely feel like I got it out of my system,” she says with a small laugh. “A short and a feature film: I’m good. I have closed the book on that aspect of my psyche.”