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Incredibles 2 may be the main course this summer, but audiences will absolutely adore the appetizer.
Before Elastigirl saves her family, another mom tends to a different kind of baby in Pixar’s new short film, Bao, debuting in front of the animated superhero sequel on June 15. The seven-and-a-half-minute short is a culinary fable about a Chinese-Canadian woman suffering from the depression of an empty nest, who gets a second shot at motherhood when one of her handmade dumplings comes alive.
Domee Shi, a storyboard artist who, with Bao, becomes Pixar’s first female short director in the studio’s history, was inspired to write and tell a story flavored by her upbringing as the only child to Chinese immigrants. “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,” Shi tells EW. “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.”
The double meaning works wonders, as Bao tracks the lengths a mother will go to protect her child, even as she watches her sweet baby grow sour. (“What is puberty for a dumpling?” Shi opines. The answer: sesame seeds.) It’s purely coincidental that the coming-of-dough short ended up slated to run in front of Incredibles 2, which also explores maternal themes by centering its focus on Holly Hunter’s character Helen, but it’s no accident that Bao feels so personal and familial. When word of the story got around Pixar after Shi presented concept images at a studio-wide meeting, employees with Asian and immigrant parents contacted Shi and producer Becky Neiman-Cobb, eager to work on the film (a mirror of what happened with last year’s Mexico-feting Coco, which received similar enthusiasm from Pixar’s Latinx community). “It felt like a really universally appealing story that a lot of people could identify with,” says Shi. “We got a ton of e-mails from people identifying with the mom character, or the dumpling character, saying, ‘Wait, that’s me,’ or ‘That’s my parents,’ or ‘I’m dealing with this right now.’”
Another willing volunteer: Shi’s mother, Ningsha Zhong — a “dumpling master,” her daughter raves — served as a cultural consultant and gave the crew two close-up, hands-on dumpling-making demos which the animators studied intimately. “Our technical directors and special effects team put the camera super close to her hands and recorded every single little detail of how she folded the dough, how she cut each piece, how she rolled each wrapper into that perfect little bun shape,” Shi recalls. “We [basically] recreated those shots with her hands and used them as the reference for animation.”
It’s also what’s on the inside that counts. While the exterior design of Dumpling was an exercise in adorable (see: the exclusive concept art above), crew members who also worked on 2007’s Ratatouille warned the Bao team that designing food would be no cakewalk. “You know Pixar and you know the special effects we can pull off here: explosions and water and splashes and fire and fireworks,” says Neiman-Cobb. “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.”
One could argue that perhaps the filmmakers even did their job too well. “We did a lot of ‘research’ and ate so many buns,” Shi says, “and as soon as I felt like I couldn’t eat another dumpling, I would go to a Bao review, watch a shot of the dumplings being made, and be like, ‘Oh my God… I’m hungry again.’”