The reason Pixar movies, like “Turning Red” (out now on Disney+), are so wonderful is because they are made and remade a half-dozen times at least, on their way to the big screen (or in this case the big Samsung in your living room). The versions of your Pixar favorites that were scrapped and rebuilt are oftentimes just as fascinating as the finished product.
“Turning Red” is the story of Mei (Rosalie Chiang), a 13-year-old girl who discovers that when she gets too emotional, she transforms into a giant red panda. (It’s an ancient family curse, you know the story.) Now she’s got to navigate her relationship with her core friend group, forge a new path forward with her overprotective mother (Sandra Oh) and figure out how to get to see her favorite boy band 4*Town when they visit Toronto. There’s also the pesky giant panda thing. It’s a typical Pixar movie, in that it weds a high concept with jaw-dropping visuals and an entire arena full of heart.
When we got a chance to chat with “Turning Red” director/co-writer Domee Shi and producer Lindsey Collins, we thought we’d bring up some of the discarded versions of Pixar’s latest wonder. (This chat was largely facilitated by the great new “Art of Turning Red” book, out now from Chronicle.) Think of it as a peek into the “Turning Red” multiverse.
The Version With Even More Relatives
While the finished movie has Mei interacting with a ton of family members, there was a version of “Turning Red” that was even more family-focused. There are images in the book that suggest Mei had a sibling at one point (Shi clarified that it was a cousin). This was left over from a much earlier version of the movie – the first, in fact.
Domee Shi: That was the very first version of the movie where it was more about this generational family feud. And we had a rival cousin and an aunt who also turned into a panda, the cousin, and yeah. It was a whole different and yeah, they were at Grandma’s funeral. We killed off Grandma.
Lindsey Collins Yeah, poor Grandma.
Domee Shi: Grandma was dead. I know. I know. And it wasn’t really so much about puberty and growing up, like, it was a lot more plotty and complicated.
Lindsey Collins: Yeah. Which is why we cut it all out.
The Version With Chinese Gangsters
One of the more striking images from the book is a doodle of a gangster – with a tattoo on his chest and a big wide grin. It is unlike anything that wound up in the film, which is what makes it stand out so much in the pages of the book. Was he some kind of nefarious 4*Town black market ticket broker? As it turns out, the character was named Benny Blacktooth. And he stuck around for various iterations of the movie.
Domee Shi: The first version was so kooky. We just really went for all out, like a goofy, Stephen Chow-esque kind of screwball kind of comedy.
Lindsey Collins: He was going to take over the temple. The temple had fallen onto hard times.
Domee Shi: But that’s based off of research where we talked to San Francisco Chinatown experts who talked about the warring Chinatown gangs. And we were inspired by that. But then it just became too complicated and we’re like, “Wait, wait, wait. We were talking about magical puberty. Why are there gangsters in this?”
The Version Where Mei Gets HUGE
Towards the end of the movie, Mei has a confrontation with her mother and things get, without giving anything away, heated. But there was a time during “Turning Red’s” development when Mei would have turned different sizes depending on how upset she was (there’s a great illustration of her lifting a car above her head) – so you can imagine how big she would get at the end.
Domee Shi: This movie took four years, and there were eight different versions of this movie. But actually early on, again, it was a more complicated, plotty story in the very first draft. And one feature of Mei’s panda powers was the more emotional she felt, the bigger she’d get. She would actually grow and shrink as a red panda. And that would cause more problems for her.
Lindsey Collins: It was like a barometer for how emotional she was.
Domee Shi: The more angry she’d get, the bigger and more feral she’d look.
Lindsey Collins: You can imagine the character department was like, “I’m sorry, what?” And, but more importantly, it was going to be one of those things where we just found ourselves having to justify it all the time. We’re like, “Well, how angry is she on the barometer in this scene?” I was like, “Oh my God.”
Domee Shi: There were too many rules to the panda. We just tried to simplify and strip it all away. And it’s like, if she gets emotional, she poofs into a single size and consistent state of the panda. And then when she calms down, she poofs back into a human. There was no barometer or anything like that. It was all just to simplify it.
The Version Where Panda Mei Is a Deity
Lindsey Collins: That was from the first version.
Domee Shi: Her mom actually was happy that Mei turned into a panda because the panda was a good luck charm for the temple. And her mom wanted to monetize her. Again, it was a completely different story. So far away from the metaphor of puberty that we were like, “Wait, why would her mom like the panda?” It makes more sense to the theme of the story of her mom was rejecting change in puberty. That was a shift that we made halfway through, like what, screening three?
Lindsey Collins: I think what you liked about that was, again, this surprising twist on a mother-daughter relationship. And I think when you first pitched, you’re like, “What are the most surprising turns I can pitch in this?” And then one of the ones was when she poofs into this giant red panda and her mom decides it’s perfect to monetize it. And it’s like, all of us in the pitch room were like, what? That is such a funny decision, from a mom’s standpoint. And then it was slowly like, OK, well, that’s actually… And it was also just figuring out what the nuance of Ming was, and she’s not a one-note villain as a mom.
“Turning Red” is streaming on Disney+ right now.