In the fashion of every Disney animated feature film released since recent memory, the screening of Disney-Pixar’s “Incredibles 2” was preceded by a short animation, also done by Pixar. And those who had the pleasure of having seated themselves in the theater when the whole program started will have had the honor of seeing the weirdly conceived yet absolutely heart-warming story of “Bao”, which hides in its surface appearance of the adventures of an animated food item, a wonderful parable of parenthood especially in its final phase when one’s children move out of the home to start their own lives.
Bereft of dialogue like the oldest of classic films, “Bao” carries its narrative through with some splendid visual storytelling. It begins with an aging Chinese mother living in Canada; her husband is busy at work and her child has left home, leaving her feeling the classic “Empty Nest Syndrome”. Then one day she receives a shock and a miracle when a baozi (dumpling) she made unexpectedly comes to life as an anthropomorphic “food-baby”. The woman sees this impossibility as an opportunity to experience being a parent again, and she decides to raise the Bao as her son. Heartwarming montage ensues.
But Bao is a child, and a child is supposed to grow and mature. We see the woman become increasingly overprotective as her dumpling child learns to interact with the world and people around him, something the mother discourages because it draws his attention from her. Things eventually come to a head when Bao, at that point a young adult, presents to his mother a Caucasian woman he plans to marry. Struck by this double whammy – her “son” not sticking to Chinese tradition and moving away from home – the panicked old woman overreacts; and we will not say anything anymore.
“Bao” was the brainchild of Pixar Studios’ Domee Shi, herself a Chinese-Canadian. Much like many master storytellers, she took plenty of elements from her own life, particularly her childhood being raised as only child by a traditionally Chinese mother, who with her father affectionately referred to Shi as a dumpling/bao.
Shi became a part of Pixar in 2011, starting off as a story intern. By 2015 she was a story artist and was part of the team that produced “Inside Out”. She had also began bouncing around the idea for her story of “Bao” as early as 2014, though she was alone in developing the project until it had developed enough for her to propose it and get more help.
In conclusion, I am man enough to admit that I was hiccupping towards the end of “Bao”, especially as the true nature of the old mother’s story became quite clear. That can be chalked up to me having seen the same story play out over and over again, not just in media but in real life. Granted, I would not say the “Bao” narrative parallels my own life, but the beats are close enough.
I can fearlessly say that many, if not most, of the “Incredibles 2” viewing audience who got to see this advance short will be very moved, to the point that they might hold it in better regard than the main film. Perhaps that was stretching too far, but it can be easily felt to be that way when you watch the mother and her “Bao” child.
Image courtesy of Time