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Pixar's 'Bao' : A modern fairytale with a twist

Updated: Apr 12, 2019

When I started to grow up, it was hard for (my mum) to let go. In fact, she’d often hold me close and say, ‘I wish I could put you back in my stomach so I knew exactly where you were at all times.’
Domee Shi, Director of ‘Bao’


Pixar’s latest short, Bao, which screened before Incredibles 2 (another blog-worthy film) caused a bit of a stir online, with some expressing confusion at its storyline, even dismissing it, whilst others applauded the film for its representation of an experience familiar to many immigrant families and its refreshingly authentic depiction of a Chinese-Canadian home. I confess that my reaction to the film was mixed: I felt moved, tickled, and a little disturbed.

This film focuses on a mother suffering empty-nest syndrome, who finds herself lonely and unhappy, that is until one of her homemade dumplings magically comes to life and she takes the baby dumpling into her care, lovingly nurturing him until he grows to be an adolescent (who doesn’t love a good dumpling with a drawn-on moustache?!) However, like many a teenager he becomes too cool for his mother and grows increasingly distant from her. He finds a girlfriend, gets engaged and decides to leave home, at which point, in a fit of desperation, the mother stops him from leaving the house by swallowing him whole.

It’s hard to know whether to gasp, laugh, or cry at this moment. (Or maybe do all three…) When the mother realises what she’s done, she breaks down into tears and takes herself to bed. On awaking it seems to have been a dream, at least in part. Blurry-eyed with tears she sees her son before her, but as his face comes into focus it becomes apparent that this is no dumpling, but her real, human son who has come back home to be reunited with her. The film ends with the contented mother teaching her son and daughter-in law how to make dumplings. Hooray for a happy ending!

So why the confusion amongst some viewers? Several critics (and tweeters) have put down the confusion to a lack of cultural understanding. Director, Domee Shi, tells the under-told story of many families, who on moving to another culture have to navigate the tensions between their traditionally family-focused lifestyle and the strongly individualistic values of the western society in which they are bringing up their children.

However, I wonder if there may be another level at which this film breaks the mould. If we lay aside the fact that the dumpling plot is only a dream, a metaphor for the bitter-sweet experience of nurturing children who grow up to be independent adults, then we are left simply with a story about a woman who eats the child she has nurtured.

Ok, so this child is actually a dumpling… but as is often the case with Pixar, the animation is so successful in its anthropomorphism that within the space of a few minutes, we have been taken on an emotional rollercoaster of a journey with this mother and have almost forgotten that her son was ever a piece of inanimate food. At the climax of the short, we have a seemingly cannibalistic act.

Cannibalism isn’t exactly a new trope in children’s fiction. It’s present in many fairy tales. There’s Jack and the Beanstalk with the giant that has a taste for Englishmen, and Hansel and Gretel who escape a child-eating witch. Earlier versions of Cinderella, Snow White, and Red Riding Hood also contain elements of cannibalism, although with the sanitisation of fairy tales our modern retellings (especially Disney films) tend to omit these parts. Whilst ‘Bao’ may not be as dark as many fairy tales, the playful innocence of this film makes the mother’s consumption of her dumpling child all the more shocking. Scary giants, evil queens, witches, and wolves may be the perpetrators of cannibalism, but loving mothers…surely not?

Shi’s comedic and mildly disturbing shock tactics ask us to consider the fine line between protective love and suffocation, between deep affection and unhealthy jealousy. Shi takes her mother’s words and presents them quite literally. “I wish I could put you back in my stomach so I knew exactly where you were at all times.” In eating her own child, the mother gets to keep her son forever. It’s almost an inversion of Snow-White; the evil queen eats the girl’s heart (or so she thinks) so as to annihilate her.

We also see in ‘Bao’ another interesting fairy tale trait; through an act that is repulsive a kind of transformation happens and we get our happy ending. (Think of the Princess who kisses the frog, turning him into a prince; Beauty who cries over the Beast and he becomes a handsome man…) Here the mother eats her dumpling child and before her tear-filled eyes, the dumpling son seems to morph into a human, and a scene of reconciliation follows.

‘Bao’ is not the only place where we see an act of cannibalism that has a seemingly transformative effect. At the heart of the gospel, we have Jesus telling his followers to eat his flesh and drink his blood. “The one who feeds on me will live because of me.” In the Christian faith, redemption is received through the means of a highly tabooed act. The shocking nature of Jesus’ claim (especially for a Jewish audience who were concerned with eating only ‘clean’ foods) provokes us to take a long hard look at ourselves and what we believe. Are we able to accept that we are frail and needy people? And can we recognise God himself in the hungry, tired, broken body of a man?

Cannibalistic narratives (whether read as literal or metaphorical) raise questions about our own threateningly animalistic tendencies and yet they also paradoxically point towards many of the values that we perceive as uniquely human: jealousy, love, ambition, betrayal, good and evil. Maybe it is the inherent shock factor of such an act that gets to the heart of many of our fears and desires about our human nature. It asks us to consider how we are to live both fully and ethically as human beings? How do we satisfy our desires and still walk a loving path?

‘Bao’ asks more specifically, how do we hold onto love, family, community and tradition? And yet also find the independence, freedom and space to form new relationships and communities? It’s a film that has the air of a prodigal son story, another narrative that comes to a climax at the point of animalistic hunger. However, in ‘Bao’ it is the awakening of the parent figure that we witness. Like the son in the parable who comes to his senses as he hungers after the food of ‘unclean’ pigs, the mother awakens (indeed quite literally) after she has committed the most tabooed act of all: the eating of her own son.

Both stories end with reconciliation and the preparations of a feast. In the biblical parable, Jesus speaks of a generous father who does not suffocate us or swallow us whole, but who offers us great freedom and the opportunity to feast and to thrive. Perhaps at heart, we all realise that nothing can really compare to father’s fattened calf or mother’s homemade dumplings. Perhaps we will always find ourselves seeking a way back home.

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