'Bao' Director Domee Shi Breaks Down Pixar's New Creepy-Sweet Short Film
Director Domee Shi knows her Pixar short Bao, which screens before Incredibles 2, goes to some dark places. The little film tells the story of a dumpling that awakens, screaming like a baby just before its creator, an older Chinese woman, is about to sink her teeth into it. From there, the meat-filled creature becomes her surrogate child. It ages and gets surly -- like most young adults do. When it is about to leave home, with a girlfriend in tow, the mother gets frustrated and swallows it whole. Bizarre, right?
Well, the next frames reveal that it was all a metaphor, because there at the door to the woman's bedroom is her adult son, who has the same goatee as the dumpling, but is an actual human and not made of dough and pork. Thus, what seems like a funny fantasy turns into a nuanced fable about overprotective parents and their rebellious children, brimming with cultural specificity. But Bao -- and that moment of consumption -- is still incredibly bold. Shi, the first female director of a Pixar short ever, and her producer Becky Neiman-Cobb walked us through its creation.
Bao was born out of hunger -- and personal history
About four years ago, Shi was sitting in her office at Pixar, intent on coming up with an idea for a short. "I was probably really hungry," she admits, when an image popped into her head of a Chinese mom intensely cuddling a baby dumpling. As she brainstormed, she drew on her own relationship with her mother. "My mom would often hold me close and say, 'Aw, I wish I could put you back in my stomach so I knew exactly where you were at all times,'" she remembers. "Like, 'Aw, that's creepy but sweet,' I guess." Shi wasn't used to seeing the "creepy-sweet" love on screen. "We've all experienced it: It's that sensation of when you see something so cute you could just eat it up," she says. "Or you just want to squeeze it until it pops. It's like, why are you feeling that way?"
Shi almost pitched a version where the dumpling does not get eaten
For Shi, the eating always made sense. "It felt like such a shocking but inevitable end to their relationship because he's such a naughty little boy, but also a dumpling [so] that of course she would eat him to prevent him from leaving," she says. But early on in the process, she feared that perhaps Pixar wouldn't be so into it. Luckily, Inside Out director Pete Docter, a mentor to Shi, prevented her from chickening out. "He heard my altered version of the pitch and he was like, 'No you have to pitch to them your original ending,'" Shi says. "'Don't wimp out, just embrace the weirdness, embrace how shocking it is, that's what I love about it and that's what I think they'll love about it too.'" Docter was right, and Shi thinks the strangest part is what got the studio on board.
That scene could have been a lot more disgusting
Shi worked hard to perfect the moment where the mom consumes the dumpling. In an earlier version, the eating was more "disturbing," Shi says. "Like I had the mom chewing it for a long time and crying and, like, oh that's gross. They're imagining him in her mouth like moving around and stuff." Neiman-Cobb adds that they made sure to have the dumpling's glasses fall off before he gets devoured, making him a little less humanoid.
The dumpling's evolution from adorable to dirtbag was purposeful
As the dumpling gets older, he matures in both attitude and look. Not only does he grow unimpressed by his mom's love, he also gets a very '90s goatee. Shi made sure to maintain his dumpling aesthetic while aging him. The facial hair, for instance, is sesame seeds. But the development serves a narrative purpose as well. The more of a dickhead he was to his mom, the more the audience would be OK with her snack. "We felt free to just turn him into a total little dumpling asshole by the end because then you're like, 'Aw yeah, eat him,'" Shi says. "He's such a little jerk. Just gulp him down. Just do it."
Shi's mom helped out behind the scenes
Pixar is filled with "perfectionists," Neiman-Cobb says, so Shi's own mother was enlisted to teach the artists how to make dumplings from scratch. Her class was photographed so the animators would be able to replicate how much flour she left on the cutting board and what kind of bowl is right for mixing the pork filling. Shi also showed her mother an early cut: "Her one note was: 'If you're going to base the mom character on me, make sure she's beautiful,' and I was like, 'Oh, OK, I'll try.'" But besides that, she instantly got what the short was trying to do, even when Pixar people were getting confused.
Bao also slides in commentary about interracial dating
Things start to go awry when the dumpling brings home a blonde, cheery girlfriend. "When I first came up with the gag of the dumpling bringing home a human girlfriend, I was just thinking of what would this mom's worst nightmare be for this dumpling bringing home anybody, and it would be a person who is the exact opposite of her," Shi says. "It would be someone young, someone non-Asian, this foreign strange woman who is coming into her life and taking her baby away from her." But Shi wanted to, once again, subvert expectations. After the big reveal, the audience and the mother see that this woman isn't so bad. In fact, she's more adept at dumpling-making than the son is. Plus, the animators added a tiny detail to demonstrate how the imagined version of her is not the reality. When she's with the dumpling, she's wearing shoes in the house. However, in the real world ending, she's just in socks, a signal that she's respecting Chinese customs.
"I wanted to show this thing that I see all around me in my friends and my generation and even in myself," Shi says. "Interracial dating is just a huge thing and a lot of immigrant families are dealing with it. Their kids are bringing home spouses or partners or people that are not from the same culture as their parents. There isn't a lot of conflict, but it's more like there's an awkwardness because there's just a strangeness to it."
Kids do get it
So you may be wondering: Will kids actually "get" Bao? Or will they be too freaked out by the cute creature getting swallowed? That, according to Shi, is an underestimation. Case in point: the girl that came up to the director after a Tribeca Film Festival screening. "This little girl, I think she was 9 or 10, came up to us afterwards and she was like, 'I love this short. I love the dumpling so much. I turned to my mom after and I said, You better not eat me when I go off to college,'" Shi recalls. "I was like, that's amazing. She got it. She got it because she is the dumpling and she probably gets that feeling a lot from her parents who just want to eat her up or who just want to keep her close forever."