featured Interview

From Puberty to Panda-monium: An Inside Look at ‘Turning Red’

March 11, 2022Ben MK

For nearly three decades, the artists and storytellers at Pixar Animation Studios have brought moviegoers some of the most endearing and timeless characters cinema has ever seen, from a tight-knit group of toys to a pair of lovable monsters, and even a lovelorn robot in search of companionship. Now, Pixar is setting out to tell one of its most harrowing tales yet — that of a teenage girl experiencing the trials and tribulations of puberty while dealing with her family's unique legacy.

In Turning Red, Bao director Domee Shi returns with the story of Meilin Lee (Rosalie Chiang), a 13-year-old elementary school student who finds herself in an unexpected situation. When Meilin wakes up one morning and discovers that she has been magically transformed into a giant red panda, her first reaction is naturally one of complete shock and panic. However, as she gradually comes to understand the full scope of the gift that has been bestowed upon her, Meilin begins to not only appreciate her new panda form, she begins to embrace it. Emboldened by the love and support of her close friends, Priya (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan), Miriam (Ava Morse) and Abby (Hyein Park), Meilin embarks on a journey of self-discovery that will reconnect her with her heritage, as well as help her develop her own unique identity. As for Meilin's mom, Ming (Sandra Oh), she too will undergo an emotional journey of her own, as she realizes that her daughter is becoming her own person.

"The inspiration behind Turning Red just came from my own life growing up in the early aughts," notes Shi. "Chinese Canadian, dorky, sassy, a nerdy girl who thought she had everything under control. She was her mom's good little girl, and then, boom, puberty hit. And I was a hormonal mess. Making this film was my chance to go back to that time and understand and excavate what was happening back then."

"What I love about this film [is how it conveys] that precious time when you're starting to figure out who you are, when your friends become really, really important," reflects fellow Canadian Oh. "For me, the girls that I grew up with in Nepean, Ontario — we're still all friends. And I think this is an extremely good representation of deep friendships, and all the highs and the lows."

"I totally agree," adds Park. "And because I'm a story artist at Pixar too, when we finally got the chance to make this female friendship, it was very important that it was authentic. [Domee and I] actually shared a lot of different stories of the moments that we love in terms of female friendship. And then she asked a lot of people within the studio too, to get an authentic insight on how girlfriends are really like and how they're there for each other."

"It was also really cool to see the set," comments Ramakrishnan, speaking about the movie being set in the early 2000s. "And to see Toronto and not have the Rogers Centre, but the good 'ol Skydome. It's the small details, like the boys wearing purple basketball jerseys. [I was born in] 2001, so I'm not a '90s kid at all. But it was still really cool to see [Toronto in that era]. It was a different time, but I could still relate [because] this is where I grew up."

"Yeah, it definitely became sort of a love letter to Toronto, too," adds Shi. "It felt like we just embraced the city. And it was in every decision about presenting the characters and the family. Just making their world as vivid as we could. I was also really excited to push the style, to try to blend in all of the things that I love about Japanese anime, which inspired me and influenced me so much growing up, with the house style of Pixar, which is so rich and detailed. It's something that the audience has never seen before."

As for the on-screen female friendships that inspired them growing up? "When I was younger, one of my favorite shows was That's So Raven," says Chiang. "[The characters showed me that] even though we sometimes have arguments, [and] it's not gonna be completely perfect, at the end of the day they truly value their friendship. They never let go of that throughout the entire show. It's something that resonated with me, because I have had many friends come and go throughout my life. But my squad right now — I've known them my entire life."

Of course, Meilin turns into a giant red panda in Turning Red. But is there another cuddly creature that the cast would choose, if they themselves were to morph into a real-life animal? "I feel like I'd want to be a sloth, cuz they just get to chill," jokes Morse. "When I'm stressed or sad, I like to take a moment to rest and maybe take a nap. So I feel like having that opportunity and being adorable and fuzzy and small would be an amazing thing for me."

Last but not least, what makes Meilin such a good role model for girls everywhere? "I'd say it's her drive," remarks Chiang. "Once she sets her mind on something, she goes for it. She puts all her time and energy into it to make sure she [achieves] whatever goal she has. Also, the fact that she goes through change. Puberty is something that everyone goes through in their life. It's such a messy and weird and awkward time that I literally went through during the recording for Pixar. And I hope people admire how she deals with it."

Turning Red is now streaming, exclusively on Disney Plus.

You May Also Like