This story about “Turning Red” first appeared in the Awards Preview issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine.
“Turning Red” is unlike any other Pixar movie. Visually, it draws inspiration from Japanese anime like “Sailor Moon” and the work of filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki. Its soundtrack is full of fake early-aughts boy band jams (written by Billie Eilish and Finneas). And it frankly depicts generational trauma and the uncomfortable realities of puberty. All in a magical story about a young Chinese-Canadian girl named Mei (voiced by Rosalie Chiang) who transforms into a giant, super fluffy red panda when she gets flustered.
What Mei doesn’t realize until later is that her affliction is hereditary. The women in her family all have the power to transform into a giant red panda when put under similar stress. And when she leaves a ritual meant to shed herself from her panda counterpart, all hell breaks loose, including her mother Ming (voiced by Sandra Oh) turning into a really giant red panda.
During this sequence, there’s a brief moment that is all the more powerful because it is so brief and so silent. While Mei is enjoying a concert by her favorite boy band, 4*Town, she wonders what her mother would do if she knew she was there. (She is unaware that her mother has transformed.) Then there’s a brief cutaway to the Toronto skyline and a looming version of her mother, mostly silhouetted.
“That came near the end, like maybe (test) screening six of seven,” said co-writer/director Domee Shi, who won an Oscar for her 2018 short “Bao.” “It was always going to be a mother-daughter Godzilla-esque showdown in Toronto. But we focused on the boy band concert around the last couple of screenings, because we were trying to find the most embarrassing thing.” Their challenge was to one-up an earlier sequence when Ming confronts Devin, a young boy who works at a convenience store, after Ming finds drawings Mei has made of the boy in amorous scenarios (including, for some reason, him as a sexy merman).
“Devin was like a little bit of a crush. And then it was like, ‘No, 4*Town is going to be exponentially bigger,’” producer Lindsey Collins said. “I think we discovered that specific cutaway gag in the edit,” Shi said. Collins added, “It’s funny and scary at the same time. It’s also playing with the scale of the terror of your mom pissed off. Like as a little kid when you think, ‘What’s she going to do when she gets home?’ There’s nothing more terrifying.”
As with all Pixar projects, the scene went through many iterations. At one point, Mei was going to grow to the same size of her mother. “It changed so that it’s only her mom that grows that big, because we want to be in the perspective of a little kid who’s in big trouble with their parent and that size difference is huge,” Shi said. “But also, in our head, the panda-logic of it all is the more you repress your panda, the bigger you are. Mei, who’s been embracing her panda and letting it out in healthy spurts throughout the movie, would have, like, a regular-sized panda. And then her mom would have, like, 30 years of repression built up and released. And that would be huge.”
Read more from the Awards Preview issue here.