Turning Red star Rosalie Chiang shares her excitement about voicing Pixar’s first Asian lead character. Disney and Pixar’s latest animated feature follows 13-year-old Mei Lee as she confronts her own version of puberty, which includes turning into a giant red panda when she feels intense emotions. Turning Red director Domee Shi has earned high praise for the film, recognition for her work as the first female solo-director for Pixar Studios. Shi worked alongside playwright Julia Cho to pen the screenplay, exploring the difficulties of adolescence while celebrating Chinese culture throughout the story. Although Turning Red did not receive a theatrical release, the film’s authentic representation of Chinese culture intertwining with the Western world earned overwhelmingly positive reactions after the premiere on Disney+. As Mei confronts her perfectionist mindset and over-protective mother, Ming (Sandra Oh), she goes on a journey of embracing her own desires and aspirations, rather than succumbing to the pressures of the world around her.
While speaking to Seventeen, Turning Red’s star opens up about how it feels to voice Mei Lee for the first Asian-led film in Pixar history. Working for such a prestigious company is an honor in and of itself, Chiang notes, but the fact that the story is infused with so much from Chinese culture and the Asian experience made the experience even better. Admitting it is a little surreal, she hopes that Turning Red opens new doors for audiences and future filmmakers. It’s an honor and it’s surreal. I feel like it hasn’t really hit me that I’m the first Asian lead because I’m already grappling with the fact that I’m leading a Pixar movie in the first place. To break this barrier feels very validating because it’s not just, oh, we took a random character and made her Asian. The fact that Mei is Asian plays a lot into the movie because there’s so much Asian culture in it, specifically Chinese culture. I hope people watch this movie and see it as a door to another culture and family life.
Turning Red marks Pixar’s twenty-fifth feature film, but the first that is centered around an Asian character and family. Critics have praised the work Shi and Cho put into the storytelling, and applauded the diverse world surrounding Mei and her family. As Chiang mentions, the film gives audiences an opportunity to witness how different family dynamics unfold across cultures, while also delivering a relatable story about the difficulties of growing up and finding oneself. Despite the high critical praise Pixar received for the film, Turning Red has earned less audience approval when compared to other features. Some suggest that the nature of the film is atypical from other Pixar titles, since this film explores girlhood, awkward teenage transitions, and makes direct references to topics like puberty, which some viewers may find uncomfortable. However, others are saying Disney and Pixar made a mistake by sending the film straight to streaming, and that pictures like this deserve a theatrical release, especially when they exemplify positive representation of cultures not yet seen on the big screen. Chiang and the entire Turning Red team celebrate a victory regardless, as the first film exploring Chinese culture and diving into a mostly female story.