The five animated short films and the five live action short films nominated for the Academy Awards are shown in theaters as a package each year (the five documentary short films are shown as a separate package). Bao was the first of the ten films in the 2019 package. (That is, the films are from 2018, or maybe 2017 in some cases, but they’re nominees for the 2019 awards and the package is shown in early 2019 in theaters.)
As a Disney Pixar work of animation, it was predictable that Bao would be impeccably well-crafted, uncontroversial, heart-warming, and humorous in places, and have a moral appealing to a mainstream audience. It is indeed all those things.
That may sound like I’m being sarcastic or damning it with faint praise, but in fact I think their short films are good to very good. I just think they’re good in certain specific, safe, ways.
A housewife-type older Chinese woman is married to a Chinese man who does not seem like a particularly unfriendly or bad guy, but more the gruff, indifferent type who goes off to work or whatever each day leaving her on her own.
Then one day, as we enter a fantasy part of the film (spoiler alert: it turns out she’s dreaming this), one of the little bunsor dumplings (that’s what a “bao” is) that she makes comes to life as a quasi-baby boy. Gradually he grows up, becoming much like any other little boy (except that he’s much smaller than his peers, not to mention he’s an article of food rather than a human being), and gradually he grows away from her, going through a rebellious teenage stage and all the rest. She tries very hard to hold on to her baby, using whatever mixture of love and authority she can muster, but it all just feels smothering to him. Ultimately, fearing she will be unable to protect him from the world and resentful at him for resenting her for trying to do so, she panics and eats him.
She wakes up, and soon we see how all this relates to her real life. The closing scenes are genuinely sweet, one of multiple moments in this set of films that got me a bit choked up.
I feel about Bao very much the way I felt about last year’s Disney Pixar nominee Lou. It’s a solid, charming film with likable characters, emotional in a good way, and funny when it wants to be. It’s a feel-good film, and again I mean that as a compliment, not in some ironic sense.