When Domee Shi and Becky Neiman-Cobb stepped onstage to receive their awards for “Best Animated Short”, millions of people around the world breathed a sigh of relief. Premiering as an introduction to Pixar’s long anticipated “Incredibles 2”, “Bao” wowed cinema goers with its heartbreaking interpretation of empty-nest syndrome and how hard it can be to let kids grow up. In the aftermath, audiences around the world were left in floods of tears. Many declared it an instant Academy Award contender.
However, as positive as many viewers and critics have been, there were some who left the theatre completely cold. For every audience that became a collective emotional wreck, there was another that left “Bao” totally baffled. In the weeks and months since it hit the screen, this polarised reaction has only become more obvious. How is it that an award winning and highly regarded piece of work can be so divisive?
Set in a Chinese-Canadian household, “Bao” tells the story of a mother struggling to deal with the absence of her now adult children. Mourning her empty home, she is given a second chance at parenthood when a dumpling comes to life in her kitchen. The story then follows the ups and downs of their relationship, as the bao grows from innocent baby to moody teen. Eventually, as the wilful dumpling demands to be allowed to leave his ‘mother’, and head out into the world with his new, blonde-haired girlfriend, the woman resorts to drastic measures - eating the dumpling she has raised. It’s certainly one of the more shocking twists in Pixar history.
It is this, emotionally charged moment that has proved to be the most divisive aspect of the film. Several commentators reported either being totally bewildered, amused or even horrified by the dramatic turn of events. At various screenings, people were heard laughing at what was intended to be the beating heart of the entire experience. A quick look on Twitter is all you need to tell you that there are many people who still feel that the whole film is just a confusing mess.
However, as perplexed as some critics were, it’s also clear that for many people from different backgrounds, “Bao” delivered a powerful and resonant message. Professional reviewers and members of the public were equally struck by a story that seemed to speak directly to them - about the difficulties of integration, of interracial dating and escaping over-protective parents. This depiction of an underrepresented community and issues that are often ignored by Hollywood is part of what made the film, for many people, an undeniable, raw gut-punch.
The homogeneity of Hollywood, and particularly animation, is a more important issue than ever. What an award-winning film like “Bao” shows is that, if we take the time to understand cultures with which we may be alien, we can be rewarded with an emotional payoff that puts our differences into perspective. As Domee Shi herself said of audiences in an interview with The New York Times, “I hope they learn about Chinese culture and community and are more curious about Chinese food, Chinatown. I hope they call their moms and take them out to lunch.” For anyone as yet unfamiliar, “Bao” might not speak directly to our own experience, but that doesn’t make it any less valid.