‘In the mood for dumplings’
The short films attached to Disney / Pixar features have regularly been sufficiently entertaining entrées leading into some of the best contemporary main courses of the animation genre.
Originating as a means of showcasing the technological innovations capable through Pixar’s revolutionary computer-generated style, the initial shorts placed their primary focus on demonstrating visual spectacle over narrative storytelling.
Developing into a training ground for future feature directors including Mark Andrews (Brave) and Peter Sohn (The Good Dinosaur), a mixture of shorts based abound characters from box-office hits Monsters Inc. and Toy Story were complemented by original works that placed greater attention on story and emotional arcs.
Accompanying the much-anticipated Incredibles 2, Bao – the first Pixar short directed by a woman, Chinese-Canadian Domee Shi – is as emotionally affecting as 2016 Best Animated Short winner Piper was visually stunning.
Introducing an unnamed married Chinese immigrant homebody preparing food for her businessman husband, an unexpected shock disrupts the empty nest malaise when a steamed bao dumpling comes to life. Caring for the developing bao to the extent of overprotection, distance begins to emerge due to the mother’s reluctance to allow her unconventional child surrogate space to breathe in the same way that led her own real life son to move out.
At just eight minutes in length, the emotions conveyed largely free of dialogue, transcend the Asian-American context to resonate universally. Whether you are a parent who has struggled to let your children grow up or a child that has come to empathise with the smothering of parental good intentions, at the heart of Bao is the comprehension that mutual understanding leads to stronger connections.
There is immense charm to the nameless characters depicted in Bao; both the middle-aged woman dealing with the effects of life after devoting years to caring for a child, as well as the anthropomorphic titular Chinese dumpling that despite the metaphor in Shi’s screenplay is recognisably human in its behaviour.
As with every Pixar production the visual look is the envy of all other animation studios – just as Alan Barillaro’s Piper provided water with sensory realism, there is a similar evocative quality conveyed to the preparation and consumption of food. Alongside producer Becky Neiman, former Pixar intern turned director Domee Shi and the entire crew involved in the project have upheld the benchmark standard for CGI animation established more than two decades ago with the release of Toy Story.
Tonally similar to the 2003 masterpiece Finding Nemo in telling a story geared on a superficial level towards younger audiences, but with the emotional depth to affect adults in an entirely different manner, Bao will do likewise in entertaining children with the cartoonish quality of the brought to life dumpling, but to the bemusement of the young, adults will be moved by the relatable humanity of the flawed good intentions of parents.
Storytelling that has relied upon innovative technology has endured recurring struggled to be taken seriously time and again. From criticisms over the artistic validity of video games, the immersive quality of 3D and the general dismissal of animation as a domain for the amusement of children, at the core of all great storytelling is genuine human emotion.
While Bao may revolve around the relationship between a woman and a dumpling, the manner in which the creative team at Pixar have generated empathy is without question one of the most compelling and novel approaches towards revealing truth about human connections that audiences are likely to come across in 2018.
As the supporting act for the very entertaining (if somewhat familiar) Incredibles 2, the lasting impression for viewers will be Bao – the all but assured recipient of another Best Animated Short for Pixar – and what is hopefully the start of a compelling future filmography for Domee Shi.