Chances are you’ve already seen Bao. By and large, short film is very much an “underseen” medium, but those rules don’t apply to Pixar shorts. As a company, they have popularized the form—made it practically mainstream. Watching a new short as a preamble to the latest Pixar blockbuster has become an expected part of the cinematic experience. And, Bao, which was packaged in theaters with the Incredibles 2 and is most likely a front-runner to win the Oscar in 2019, is now online to stream via YouTube.
There’s no doubt that Bao is hitting at some familiar “Pixar-ish” notes—ever since the opening sequence in Up, they have become reliable instigators of tears. But, while Bao will probably make you cry, its efforts to do so come off less forced here than in some of the other recent Pixar shorts. For one, it’s exploring a mother/son relationship in a way that is highly unique, anthropomorphizing a Chinese dumpling in order to represent the gap created as a mother and son drift apart over the passage of time. Bao just goes weirder than many Pixar shorts, and dammit, we respect that!
Moreover, it feels culturally specific. It has been a common refrain in 2018 that representation is important (even in animation), and director Domee Shi’s take on the Chinese/Canadian immigrant experience clearly comes from a personal place (Shi immigrated to Canada with her parents when she was two). Empty nest syndrome obviously isn’t limited to specific ethnicities, but Shi recognizes the power of representing the universal through the specific.
The film also looks beautiful. Surely that seems obvious coming from a studio as massive as Pixar, but, again, Bao doesn’t strive for convention. The characters are short, squat, and pudgy—cute, yes, but also visually distinct and somewhat awkward looking. And, the way the film depicts food is unparalleled in the form. Those dumplings just look straight up delicious!
Shi, who worked as a storyboard artist on several Pixar projects, is now being tapped to direct a feature length film within the studio in 2022.