Viewers tuning in to Pixar’s animated movie Turning Red may wind up wondering exactly what the characters are saying during two key sequences where they begin to chant in Cantonese. In one scene in the animated film, 13-year-old protagonist Mei, who’s started turning into a giant red panda whenever she gets emotional, sits down for a family ritual meant to control her inner panda. Her parents, grandmother, and other family members chant rhythmically to begin that ritual. Later in the film, the chant recurs in a different context. The words aren’t subtitled, even in the various Chinese-language translations of the movie.
“What are they saying?” Mei asks Mr. Gao (voiced by James Hong), who’s leading the ritual. He tells her it doesn’t really matter — the ritual just requires participants to sing from the heart. “It doesn’t matter what,” Mr. Gao says. “I like Tony Bennett. But your grandma, she’s from old school.”
But director Domee Shi and producer Lindsey Collins couldn’t just have the cast sing any random thing — they had to develop their own chant for the movie. The pair tell Polygon that a lot of work went into making the ritual sound right.
“We were really inspired by Taoist chants that monks would do in Taoist temples,” Shi says. “At first, we wanted to see if there was an existing Taoist chant we could use. But then we thought, because this family is so specific, the situation is so unique — this family has this magical panda curse running through them! — we should come up with our own chant for it.”
Shi wanted to make sure a native speaker was involved in developing the chant, so she and her team reached out to Herman Wong, the Hong Kong-based Asian-Pacific operations director for Disney Character Voices International, the Disney division that handles translation and dubbing services. She says she doesn’t remember the exact words of the ritual herself, because it was a translation of a piece Wong helped them find.
“We knew it had to be in Cantonese, because the family is Cantonese,” she says. “He helped us translate a poem, a protection chant, with lyrics about watching over this girl, guiding her through her journey. He helped us create this rhyming chant.”
The next step was making sure the voice cast — including Sandra Oh and Ho-Wai Ching as Mei’s mother and grandmother — were comfortable with the poem and with making it sound like something ancient the family had passed down for centuries.
“We worked with a Cantonese dialect coach, Andy. We loved him,” Shi says. “He worked very closely with with each of the actors and actresses when it came time to record the chant.”
At the movie’s climax (spoilers ahead!), the family repeats the chant, this time to bring Mei’s mother’s panda under control after she hurts herself, raging against Mei’s adolescent rebellion. In the climactic final number, the chant winds up merging with Ludwig Göransson’s score and “Nobody Like U,” one of the songs siblings Billie Eilish and Finneas O’Connell’s wrote for Turning Red’s heartthrob boy band 4*Town.
“It’s funny, we had in our head this idea of combining the chant at the end with the 4*Town music and the orchestration, and hoping it all came together,” Shi says. “But it was still a shot in the dark. It was a lot of, like, ‘I don’t know, maybe this will work?’”
“And then Ludwig was great,” Collins says. “He was like, ‘All right, so if the 4*Town song is in this key, let’s do this—’ He worked with us to make sure that rhythmically, we were doing what we needed to be doing so he could produce the remix. You know, he’s a pop record producer, in addition to being a composer. So he was able to pull the chant into his own system, along with the 4*Town song, and do this awesome remix where we were like, ‘Oh my God, it works!’ But I think it worked because he’s a magician. I’m not sure it worked because we’re magicians.”
Turning Red is currently streaming on Disney Plus.