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No, that isn’t a Thundercats reference in Turning Red (but it sure feels like one)

Director Domee Shi explains why one scene in the film looks and feels so different — and familiar

Image: Pixar Animation Studios

If you’re anything like me and you grew up during an era when there was a Thundercats series on TV, you may have perked up during the new Pixar movie Turning Red at the point where one character picks up a sword with a very familiar-looking design, centering on a big red circular stone on the crossguard. Later in the film, when the same character raises the sword over his head and that gem emits a vivid red beam of light, the moment feels even more familiar. The sword looks a lot like the Thundercats’ signature weapon, the Sword of Omens, and the action in that sequence feels a lot like the sequence that ended virtually every episode of the original 1980s incarnation of the show, with series protagonist Lion-O activating the sword and emitting a giant red blast of light to summon his allies or break them free of magical influences and physical restraints.

But Turning Red director Domee Shi says any similarity there just comes from the way both Thundercats and Turning Red draw on the same influences and iconography. “That’s just a homage to anime in general, not specifically to Thundercats!” she told Polygon in an interview ahead of the film’s release. “But it is very reminiscent of Thundercats.”

Shi and her team drew from several of her favorite anime series to create the look and feel of the film, and to inspire details like the big pink poof of smoke whenever protagonist Mei turns into a giant red panda, or the giant quivering “anime eyes” the characters have in moments of intense emotion.

Mei, the protagonist of Turning Red, and her friends clutch each other at a concert, while all sporting giant quivering anime eyes Image: Pixar Animation Studios

“Throughout the whole movie, you’re gonna see this combination of Western and Eastern animation styles,” Shi told Polygon. “At that moment, in the movie’s act three, we cranked up the anime to an 11, because it’s this action-packed, emotional, exciting, dramatic moment, and it just felt like a perfect opportunity to have that epic beam of light. I love how it activates right on the beat. It’s very satisfying.”

The light-beam also doesn’t look quite like anything else in Turning Red, because it incorporates flat 2D overlays to enhance the 3D CGI of the rest of the film. Shi and producer Lindsey Collins credit Pixar animator Rob Thompson with developing the look of that particular effect. “They were drawing over all this in all the proofs [of this scene], over the beams, trying to really put that element of 2D onto it,” Collins says. “That was really fun.”

Shi says that part of what gave her the confidence to stylize the movie the way she wanted, and to draw on her anime favorites for inspiration, was her work on 2019’s Pixar project Bao, which won the Academy Award for Best Animated Short. Bao sparked some strange reactions in theaters from viewers who didn’t understand its symbolism or significance, but it got a strong, vocal positive response as well. Shi drew on both of those reactions when she decided to make Turning Red culturally and personally specific, knowing that people would see different things in it and interpret it in different ways, but would have a powerful response either way.

Bao gave me the confidence to push it in Turning Red, and really take a lot of creative risks that I don’t think I would have taken without Bao,” Shi says. “It gave me that craving of wanting reactions — big, big, shocking audience reactions. I was chasing that dragon again, and we’ve been able to get it with Turning Red.”

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