'A Goofy Movie' and 'Sailor Moon': Domee Shi's Inspirations for 'Turning Red'
How Domee Shi riffs on Disney Channel Original Movies and Miyazaki in new Pixar classic.
Domee Shi's Turning Red, the latest Pixar movie to hit Disney+, is a burst of early aughts girl energy—bubbly and bright and obsessed with Tamagotchis and harmonizing boy bands. It was a period Shi felt confident representing because it was when she herself was an awkward tween trying to navigate her burgeoning interests with her relationship with her mother. Shi, of course, did not turn into a giant red panda when she hit puberty, but that's the magic of animation.
In many ways, Turning Red wears its creator's influences on its sleeve. Shi wanted to represent the vibrant diversity of her hometown of Toronto, while also building an entirely original mythology for her Chinese immigrant characters. Mei's panda powers are passed down through the generations of women in her family thanks to folklore invented specifically for the movie with imagery that pays tribute to the art of the Ming Dynasty. But inventing her fairytale, Shi also took inspiration from the likes of Disney Channel Original Movies, anime, and forgotten Canadian boy bands. Here's a look into her process.
Disney Channel Original Movies
While Shi acknowledges there were some "obvious" kid-transforms-into-creature inspirations, like Teen Wolf, she also drew on hallmarks of the genre from her own childhood. Namely, Disney Channel Original Movies. You know, the ones where the protagonists must deal with the pressures of adolescence by turning into leprechauns or mermen.
There's a whole genre of teen transformation movies and shows. I mean, Teen Wolf was the obvious point of inspiration. But also I grew up in the early 2000s and there just seemed to be a lot of made for TV movies on the Disney Channel that dealt with this, but in hilarious and kind of bad kitschy ways like The Thirteenth Year, about the boy who realized he's a merman, or Luck of the Irish, where a boy realizes he's a leprechaun. His mom is a leprechaun and he's inherited the leprechaun gene or something. But there's just this playful, tweeny kind of transformation genre that I was apparently very inspired by. It was very meaningful to me growing up that I wanted to kind of explore and kind of dig in a little bit deeper with this movie.
*NSYNC, O-Town, and b4-4
If you're making a movie about a tween girl set in the early aughts, chances are you might want to acknowledge the boy band mania of that era. According to Shi, Mei's obsession with a fictional group started out as a one-off joke and turned into the entire climax of the film.
In the very first version of the movie, we had this scene between Mei and Ming, her mom, where Ming is not understanding her daughter. She's saying, "Why do they call it 4*TOWN if there's five of them?" And it was such a funny joke that justified us keeping the boy band in the movie, but then their role got bigger and bigger, and then it just made sense to have Mei's goal for the movie to get to the 4*TOWN concert. That 4*TOWN would be the stakes of the movie just felt so 13, and we were so excited by the idea to make our own boy band.
*NSYNC was my favorite for sure. But I think the name 4*TOWN was probably a combination of O-Town, and then I don't even know if most people know that there was this Toronto boy band called b4-4 I think only Toronto tweens knew about. I think it's like O-Town and b4-4 merged together with *NSYNC to create 4*TOWN. I looked up b4-4 recently because I haven't heard their songs in forever. The lyrics are so raunchy, but it's very teeny bopper-y and cute. One of their songs is called "Get Down" and literally the chorus is, "If you get down on me, I'll get down on you." I just remember belting that out and my mom being, "What are you saying?"
Sailor Moon, Ranma ½, and Fruits Basket
Turning Red diverges from Pixar's house style of animation, weaving in anime elements in both the character design and the camera work. "There are a lot of snap zooms and whip pans, it's kind of a character of its own," Shi says. "We really push the colors in every single shot, just to really enhance the emotion and feeling of the shot, the effects too." There were a couple of specific series she looked to in her process.
It was important for us to really push the look and the style of this movie. We really wanted the world to feel how Mei feels and how she might see the world. She's this excitable tween girl. So it just felt right that we have to push the colors of the world, really exaggerate and push the camera and just really make the audience feel what she's feeling at any given moment because she feels so many big emotions in the movie.
I've been a huge fan of Japanese anime for as long as I can remember. And this was just such a great opportunity to try to blend anime with CG animation, which I haven't really seen done that effectively yet in a big budget western movie. I love that anime is so expressive and exaggerated and funny but also emotional too. They really push the style of animation to heighten emotions which made perfect sense for this movie about a girl with very heightened emotions.
Sailor Moon [was an inspiration] in the palette—the dreamy, feminine, color palette—but also in Sailor Moon's friendship with the other Sailor Scouts and how each girl is kind of assigned a specific color. We totally pay homage to that with Mei and her friend group, too. In terms of magical transformation stories, Ranma ½ and Fruits Basket I loved growing up because they just play so fast and loose with the transformation. Characters just poof in the pink cloud and they just turn from animal to human and then back and forth. I love how in those stories the world treats it so casually. But also these are teenagers dealing with drama at school and crushes and betrayals and all that stuff. And we really wanted to borrow that playfulness and looseness in how they incorporate magic into their stories.
A Goofy Movie
Shi and her team took cues from recent coming-of-age stories like Pen15and Greta Gerwig's Lady Bird, but she also kept another animated classic in the back of her mind.
Lady Bird was a great movie that we watched for that mother-daughter dynamic. I just love that genre so much. Oh, this is weird: A Goofy Movie. When you watch that movie and then you watch our movie, you'll be, "Oh wow. There's a lot of crossover." I love that movie. The music—Powerline—is so good. I mean, also just his relationship with his dad. It's a parent child story too. I love how set in a time period it is too. The thing that is very late '90s. The fashion of all the characters is very specific. We totally were inspired by that. It'd be such an honor if someone called Turning Red the new A Goofy Movie.
My Neighbor Totoro
If there's one figure from animation that looms large over Turning Red, it's Totoro from Hayao Miyazaki's My Neighbor Totoro. Shi went into the project with the intention of bringing her own Totoro to life.
My secret goal in the beginning was to create our own version of Totoro. How do we create this iconic grabbable giant animal that you just want to rub your face in? It was also tricky too, because we wanted her to feel like a red panda, but a magical red panda. So there were certain choices that we made, little details that we added to swirl patterns in her fur just to make her feel a little bit more magical and not exactly a real red panda. It was so important for her to be huge too, because it just helps so much with that metaphor of puberty. You're suddenly huge and you're knocking stuff over every time you turn around.
I grew up with Hayao Miyazaki movies and Totoro is one of those movies that you can just go back and revisit over and over again. I love that it's about girls going on adventures in their backyard. It's so imaginative and magical, but there's also deep, deep darker themes in there too. Their mom is sick and it just feels so real. I just love that, that balance between realism and magic and really inspired by that in our movie too. Even though fantastical things are going on, it's still very much set in Toronto. You see Mei and her mom and her dad in a very slice of life scene where they are making dumplings, watching soap operas. We were still able to add a lot of those natural real moments that I think makes the movie feel so much more grounded and emotional.