‘Turning Red’ Director Explains Mei’s Emotional Backstory

pixar turning red domee shi

Not all Disney or Pixar fans found the new movie Turning Red (a movie about a 13-year-old girl named Meilin Lee who poofs into a giant red panda when upset) to be one of Disney or Pixar’s best films. Some people found the early-2000’s style to be cringeworthy, while others found it to be a little too abstract. Pixar seems happy with the film, despite contrasting reviewsTurning Red director and producer Domee Shi and Lindsey Collins were both promoted to higher positions, and they just spoke to D23 about the inspiration behind the animated movie!

rosalie chiang

Newcomer Rosalie Chiang (left), who is the voice of Mei Lee, the lead character in Disney PIxar’s new animated feature “Turning Red,” works with director Domee Shi during a recording session at Pixar in Emeryville. Credit:

“Back in 2017, as I was promoting my short film Bao, a lot of people kept asking me, ‘Why is this little dumpling a boy?’” Shi told D23. “I would reply, ‘Oh, because I only had eight minutes to tell this story. For a mother-daughter story, I’d need an entire feature film to unpack that.’” Since the fraught relationship between Mei and her mother Ming is one of the most prominent themes in Turning Red, this definitely makes sense!

Shortly after Bao, Domee Shi pitched three movie ideas. “All of my ideas were coming-of-age teen girl stories, because that was something I was super passionate about telling,” Shi remembers. “At the time, it wasn’t something that I saw a lot of in media or in animated films.”


Domee Shi, the director of ‘Turning Red’. Credit: Disney

Of the three movie ideas, the Turning Red concept was apparently “the most personal” for Shi, as well as for Pete Doctor (the Chief Creative Officer for Pixar Animation Studios, and the Pixar Brain Trust). “It was weird and very specific. At the end of the day, that’s what draws people to these ideas and stories. It was inspired by my own relationship with my mother,” she added.

“Like Mei, I’m an only child,” Shi continued. “I was always super close to my parents—especially my mom—since my dad had to go away for work often. It was just the two of us. We did everything together. We commuted together to work and to school in downtown Toronto. We went on mother/daughter bus trips and vacations”. That does sound a lot like Mei!

“But then, as all kids do, I started to grow up. I started changing,” Shi continued. “I started getting into anime and comics. I hung out with my friends more and more, and less and less with my mom. She didn’t understand why I was obsessed with these fictional characters with huge eyes and colorful, spiky hair! I was being pulled in one direction, but my duty and my loyalty to my mom was pulling me in another.”

Meilin Lee, Turning Red

Meilin Lee in Turning Red, voiced by newcomer Rosalie Chiang Credit: Disney/Pixar

Shi then spoke about Mei’s experience with puberty in the film and her inner giant red panda. “For Mei, the red panda is like a magical spark that sets off this internal conflict within herself,” Shi said. “Because up until that [transformation], Mei thinks she has it all figured out—like we all did before we woke up one day and realized all of a sudden we’re covered in body hair, we smell funky, our emotions are all over the place, and we’re hungry all the time. We wanted to use the red panda as an adorable metaphor for the scary, unadorable, awkward, and cringy changes we go through during that age”.

Domee Shi also revealed to D23 that the dynamics in an Asian family were an important part of the story. “We wanted to explore the nuances of Asian parent-child relationships, from dealing with change to all of the intergenerational conflict and how it shapes who we become. Turning Red is quirky and surreal, but at its core, it’s a mother and daughter finally embracing change in all of its messy and furry forms—even if it means saying goodbye to the relationship they once had,” Shi finishes.

lindsey collins

Pixar Producer Lindsey Collins Credit: Pixar/Variety

Apparently, the creators of Turning Red directed a lot of their own memories and feelings into the movie. Producer Lindsey Collins told D23 that “the crew brought in their middle school yearbooks and shared stories of their awkward moments in middle school…those of us who are parents shared our bad parenting moments. We really had to be real with one another about our daily failures and our daily successes.”

Collins also spoke about her efforts to keep Mei’s mother, Ming (who is voiced by Sandra Oh), from being completely villainized.

Turning Red

Ming and Meilin Lee. Credit: Disney/Pixar

Even though Domee has a very personal stake in Mei’s story in Turning Red, she also clarified that the message of this film is one that’s meant for anyone going through puberty. “This part of your life is going to be messy. It’s going to be scary, funny, awkward, and embarrassing, but it’s going to be OK. You’re going to survive!” she said.

As for the reasons for choosing red pandas as the movie’s theme and Mei’s inner animal, there were three big factors in choosing the fluffy animals. Check them out here!

About Sharon

Sharon is a writer and animal lover from New England. Sharon's two main focuses in her work are Disney's correlations with pop culture and the significance of Disney princesses (which was the basis for her college thesis). When she's not writing about Disney, Sharon spends her time singing, dancing, and cavorting with woodland creatures!

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