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Pixar’s ‘Bao’ Proves That Profit Awaits the Culturally Conscious

Disney is looking to find universal truths in specific life experiences.
Pixar Bao Short Film
Walt Disney Pictures
By  · Published on April 2nd, 2018

After the negative reaction Disney received from planting the never-ending short that was Olaf’s Frozen Adventure in front of Coco, the Mouse House is hoping to regain audience favor with their latest Pixar mini-adventure. Scheduled to play before Incredibles 2 (after premiering at the Tribeca Film Festival), the 7½-minute Bao looks to achieve universal emotional response by embracing Chinese culture. This food fantasy tackles a mother’s depression after her children have flown the coop. She finds new love in the form of a handmade dumpling that springs to life from her care, and the film details the precarious nature of parenting.

Looking at recent successes like Moana and Coco, Disney has discovered that there is plenty of monetary value in supporting culturally conscious storytelling. Not only do we want to see our own culture depicted on screen, but we are ready to see other cultures celebrated as well. Universality is found through specificity.

Storyboard artist turned director Domee Shi (Inside Out, Incredibles 2) is the first woman in Pixar’s history to direct one of the studio’s short films. Speaking to Entertainment Weekly, she explained how her relationship with her mother shaped the story:

“Often times it felt like my mom would treat me like a precious little dumpling, wanting to make sure I was safe, that I didn’t go out late, all that stuff. I just wanted to create this magical, modern-day fairy tale, kind of like a Chinese ‘Gingerbread Man’ story. The word ‘bao’ actually means two things in Chinese: Said one way, it means steamed bun. Said another, it means something precious. A treasure.”

From Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs to Sausage Party, we’ve had a full smorgasbord of food-based fantasy films. The dinner table is often a playground for morality stories. Children have always found empathy in what’s in the fridge. Central messages surrounding snacks like that of “The Gingerbread Man” have involved friendship, acts of kindness, and bullying.

We’re ready to broaden our palate in the classroom. No more bland moralizing from the “Let’s Go To The Lobby” concession stand parade. Through the steamed bun, Shi can knock two birds with one stone. She can present a life lesson and represent a culture rarely exposed to a blockbuster audience.

The challenge will be in portraying a dumpling that is precious and adorable without making it look absolutely munchable. Using her own mother as a cultural consultant and “dumpling master,” Shi could fall into dangerous territory by stoking our appetite for the title character. That delicious treat sure is cute, but my stomach is rumbling.

Producer Becky Neiman-Cobb discusses the effect of the intense research process the animators have partaken in to bring Bao to life:

“One of the biggest challenges, and what brought our effects department to their knees, was Dumpling’s pork filling. That was hard. We learned there’s a very fine line between looking delicious and appetizing and looking wrong or gross. Making our food look delicious was a big triumph.”

Will it be better to watch Bao on a full stomach? Maybe we should all pre-game Incredibles 2 with a full-course meal, or at least line up a dinner date afterwards to satiate any resulting pangs of hunger.

Olaf’s Frozen Adventure aside (which was a Disney proper production), I always anticipate the short before a Pixar movie. The studio has mastered the art of eliciting intense emotional response in the briefest of windows. Whether it’s the first 10 minutes of Up or the technical wizardry seen in the Oscar-winning Piper, Pixar storytellers are capable of plucking the heartstrings without the whole orchestra. Give them a single violin and they’ll get the job done.

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Brad Gullickson is a Weekly Columnist for Film School Rejects and Senior Curator for One Perfect Shot. When not rambling about movies here, he's rambling about comics as the co-host of Comic Book Couples Counseling. Hunt him down on Twitter: @MouthDork. (He/Him)