Domee Shi recounts her mother’s moving words – the phrase she heard on every visit home after moving: Oh, Domee, I wish I could put you back in my stomach to know exactly where you were at all times.
“I always thought that was such a sweet but very scary thing to say to your daughter,” Shi said, laughing heartily, during a recent Zoom call. “I kind of wanted to understand where that feeling came from.”
As an artist and filmmaker, Shi weighed the creative possibilities of those words until a story came to life. His mother’s phrase inspired Shi’s 2018 Academy Award-winning animated short “Bao,” in which an empty-nest mother eats her allegorical son dumpling rather than let him go.
The success of that film directly fueled Shi’s new follow-up – a more complex tale also featuring a protective mother of Chinese descent, as she navigates her relationship with a strong daughter in the onset of puberty. “Turning Red,” which just dropped on Disney Plus, isn’t just Pixar’s first female-directed solo film. It also continues Pixar’s growth with personal stories exploring matrilineal lines – even within Disney, which has long used animated parental death as a narrative device.
“We’ve always tried to make our films personal,” Pixar chief Pete Docter said. “We’ve done other films that focus on female characters, like ‘Brave’ and ‘Inside Out’, but it was great to really kick that off even further with Domee and ‘Turning Red’.”
Other maternal characters have emerged as pivotal characters over the past decade in Pixar hits such as “Coco,” as well as Disney’s “Encanto,” which is up for three Oscars at the Academy Awards. this month.
Since the dawn of Disney animation, however, going back more than eight decades, parents have been regularly dumped or missing – from early Disney classics such as “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” to more modern hits. such as “Frozen”. And sometimes the mother’s death comes traumatically onscreen, like in Disney’s “Bambi” and Pixar’s “Finding Nemo.” In the tragic realm, orphans abound.
Reasons for creating a narrative that makes parents disappear may include the empathy engendered, as well as launching a young hero on a journey of self-discovery – a frequent arc that includes ‘Lion King’ outings. from Disney and “The Good Dinosaur” from Pixar.
Countering this trend at Pixar in particular, however, vivid maternal characters have appeared in stories such as the films “Luca”, “Soul” and “The Incredibles”. And two pioneering filmmakers from the studio’s last decade — Brenda Chapman and Shi — have particularly probed the complexities of mother-daughter relationships.
Chapman, the first woman to co-direct a Pixar feature film, told The Washington Post in 2013 that she wrote the Oscar-winning pic “Brave” as “a love letter” to her daughter. The film largely focuses on the tug of war between the independent spirit of medieval teenage archer Merida and the expectations of her Scottish Highland royal family. She and her mother, Queen Elinor, struggle to understand each other even as they race against time after Merida’s impetuous wish turns Mom into a bear.
For “Turning Red”, Shi undermined his own life for a story set in early Toronto, as 13-year-old Meilin “Mei” Lee (voiced by Rosalie Chiang) rebels against the hovering control of his mother, Ming. (Sandra Oh). The supernatural secret of this Chinese-Canadian family, however, is that Mei suddenly begins to transform into a giant red panda when her emotions flare up.
“I was her,” says Shi, who is in her thirties. “I was Mei when I was 13 – I was this silly, confident, obsessive girl who thought she had her life under control. I was her mother’s perfect little girl and then one day I found myself woke up and everything changed: my body, my emotions, my relationship with my mother – I was fighting with her every day.”
Thanks to Shi’s attention to detail, “Turning Red” resists easy caricatures of parent-child bickering, instead finding emotionally true notes that feel rooted in the specificity of the experience. “Doing this movie, it’s just that I want to go back and understand what was going on at that time,” says Shi, who was born in China before her family moved to Canada when she was a toddler. “Not just from my own perspective, but also from my mom’s — and just look at growing up and puberty through a fun, weird, awkward lens and laugh about it, but also celebrate it.”
The family dynamic becomes more complex as other female relatives enter the scene with their own family secrets – while Mei’s father remains attentively present but mostly silent.
Ming, the grandmother and aunts in this film are “directly inspired by the strong women in my life who raised me,” says Shi, who was a screenwriter on “Inside Out” before Docter started encouraging his stories. personal. (His speech for “Bao,” he says, stood out “as completely original and rather shocking.”)
Chiang appreciates the depth of depiction of a deep family tree in this tale. “Turning Red,” she says, “shows how history repeats itself over generations.”
Oh, whose parents immigrated to Canada from South Korea, says she was drawn to the project’s rendering of matrilineal relationships, particularly within an Asian culture. “I think for those who’ve been through this as kids, it’s like trying to balance the level of love and loyalty we have to our parents and our culture, and the stress it can put on the kids trying to find each other too,” Oh says, noting that even her choice to become an actress meant overcoming obstacles within her family.
Oh says “Turning Red” can also be enjoyed from a mother’s perspective. “During this early period when the hormones are racing and [adolescents] become these crazy animals, you don’t know what to do with them and you don’t understand why they don’t listen to you,” the ‘Killing Eve’ actress explains, adding, “That’s hopefully what we We can kind of see The Flavor with, with Ming, it’s this struggle that they both have of not wanting to lose the connection and the love, but understanding that has to change.”
For Shi, who co-wrote “Turning Red” with Julia Cho, even following her animation dreams brought her own internal sense of worry about parent-child separation.
“I really felt that guilt when I first moved to California when I got the job at Pixar,” Shi said of his move from Canada to the studio’s Emeryville campus. “I was the furthest from my parents. As an only child, I was just like, Oh no, I’m leaving them and I feel really bad. But I also really, really need this – I I need to leave.”
Doing “Bao,” she says, was her creative way of “dealing with my own feelings of leaving the nest, but even after her triumphant eight-minute short, “I felt like I had barely scratched the surface. “.
“So when I was given the opportunity to direct a feature film, I was like, ‘Okay, here we go! Mother-daughter relationship – let’s dive into it and analyze it from all angles.’