With the release of the Disney movie “Turning Red,” Domee Shi is the first woman to solo-direct a Pixar film in the studio’s 36-year history.
Shi’s work on the feature breaks a number of barriers in Hollywood. “Turning Red” follows the story of 13-year-old Canadian-Chinese teen Meilin Lee through the awkward throes of puberty — in this case, a “magical puberty transformation,” Shi told the New York Times, where Mei turns into a giant red panda anytime she feels overwhelmed by anger, lust or (lots of) embarrassment.
In an interview with the Times, Shi referred to the vibe as “Asian tween fever dream” influenced by pop culture icons of “Teen Wolf” and “Lizzie McGuire.”
For Shi, 32, centering the awkward adolescent experience of half the population is long overdue: “It’s a side of teen girls that you never get to see,” Shi told the Times. “We are just as awkward and sweaty and lusty and excited as any boy.”
Before bringing the movie to the masses, though, she had to get senior Disney executives onboard. She recalled thinking before one pitch meeting: “How do I sell this and get old white men who’ve never experienced this before excited about this and wanting to, like, see more of it?”
It helps that Shi has now spent more than a decade with Pixar honing her animation and pitching chops. Shi joined the studio in 2011 as a storyboarding intern after being rejected on her first try (her father, an art teacher, encouraged her to apply again) and described the experience to the website That Shelf as “a lot of fun” but also “the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life.”
After the internship, she stayed with Pixar as a staff artist and contributed to films including “Inside Out” and “Incredibles 2.” During that time, she began working on a side project — “doodling outside of work” as she told Deadline — and pitched Pixar on three short concepts in a studio open call in 2016.
She credits Pixar legend Pete Docter (they worked on “Inside Out” together) for his mentorship and encouragement to pitch what would become “Bao,” an 8-minute short about a dumpling that comes to life with a shocking twist at the end meant to symbolize the all-consuming love of a parent: The older woman, an empty nester who raises and cares for the dumpling brought to life, eats it in an act equally destructive as it is meant to be protective.
Shi pitched her original ending to Docter, to his delight, but changed it when she formally pitched it to the studio.
As she told the Times: “Pete was in that pitch meeting, and he stood up and said, ‘Wait, no, that is not the version you told me about a couple weeks ago.’ He turned to the group and said, ‘Her original ending was really cool and weird and shocking.'”
Shi was then allowed to re-pitch her original idea: “I think because of that experience it gave me the confidence to not be afraid to try bold, weird and shocking things in the stories I want to tell — to not censor myself,” she said.
With “Bao” greenlit, Shi became the first woman to direct a Pixar short and first woman of color to win an Oscar for best animated short film in 2019.
Through “Bao” and now “Turning Red,” Shi says she’s encouraged to tell stories that reflect her own experience as an Asian woman from Canada, while exploring issues like complicated parent-child relationships and learning to express, rather than suppress, tough emotions.
“We are redefining what universal stories look and feel like, no longer do they have to be, I think, portrayed by like one group of people,” she told WBUR. “I think we can all kind of identify with Mei and her struggle with growing up and with her mom.”
“Turning Red” is available to stream on Disney+ but did get one theater screening recently, Toronto Life reports, to staff at the Pixar amphitheater.
At the end of the movie, Shi got up onstage with Pixar vice president and producer Lindsey Collins, production designer Rona Liu and visual effects supervisor Danielle Feinberg — the first time anyone at Pixar had seen an all-female leadership team on stage together.