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."