When searching for inspiration for her first feature film, Domee Shi, the Academy Award-winning director of Pixar’s short film “Bao,” turned to her relationship with her mother.
The result is “Turning Red,” Pixar’s first feature-length film directed by an Asian woman that’s slated for release on Disney+ on March 11. The movie tells the story of a “confident and dorky” 13-year-old Chinese Canadian girl named Meilin Lee who lives in Toronto in the early 2000s. One day, she discovers that she’s imbued with magical, ancestral powers that turn her into a red panda any time she experiences intense emotions.
But underneath the humor and fantasy of the film is a story about the relationship between a mother and her daughter and the struggles Meilin feels between being a dutiful daughter while experiencing the disarray of adolescence.
Meilin is voiced by Rosalie Chiang and her mother, Ming, is voiced by Sandra Oh.
“What I hope this film opens up is a conversation for those in the Asian community. When you’re a young person, you’re going to disappoint your parents,” Oh told NBC Asian America. “It’s very hard for us, but you will and it’s OK. It’s natural and you need to find your own way.”
Shi hopes immigrant children, especially Asian children, can relate to the changes Meilin goes through in the movie and how she eventually learns to accept them.
“They have to figure out what world they belong to, how to honor their parents and their family’s expectations, but how to carve out this independent identity for themselves in this new world that their family is not from,” Shi said.
The film depicts embarrassing moments for Meilin that Shi borrowed from her own life, including a scene in which Ming follows her daughter to school to spy on her, and is chased out by a security guard. Her classmates see her and burst into laughter.
“With many Pixar films, it helps hit multiple generations with its storyline. You know, of course, it’s focused on 13-year-old Mei. But I think there are mothers who are going to watch this film and hopefully feel seen and understood,” Oh said.
Ming and Meilin’s relationship changes as the girl wrestles with growing pains, something her mother struggles to accept.
Shi hopes viewers can relate to and find relief in the ups and downs of Meilin and Ming’s relationship. “I think, especially for immigrant kids, Asian kids, and for Mei in the movie, I think she has to come to realize that there is no perfect relationship with your parents, that it is always going to be messy,” she said.
“We really wanted to explore the nuances of Asian parent-child relationship in dealing with change, and of intergenerational conflict and how it can shape who we become,” Shi said during a press conference in January.
The film also stars Maitreyi Ramakrishnan ("Never Have I Ever"), Ava Morse and Hyein Park as Meilin’s best friends, and Finneas O’Connell and Jordan Fisher as singers in the fictional boy band 4*Town. The movie also features original music by Billie Eilish and O’Connell.
“Turning Red is quirky, and surreal, but at its core, it is a mother and daughter finally embracing change in all of its messy, and furry forms, even if it means saying goodbye to the relationship you once had,” Shi said.