With China-flavored “Bao,” Pixar touts its first short directed by a woman. (It premieres at Tribeca on April 21 before bowing in front of “The Incredibles 2” on June 15.) The brainchild of story artist Domee Shi (“The Incredibles 2,” “Toy Story 4”), “Bao” explores a Chinese-Canadian woman who overcomes her depression when one of her hand-made dumplings comes to life and needs a mom.
The semi-autobiographical, seven-and-a-half-minute short reflects Shi’s upbringing as the only child of Chinese immigrants: “I just wanted to create this magical, modern-day fairy tale, kind of like a Chinese ‘Gingerbread Man’ story,” she told Entertainment Weekly.
Meanwhile, the title “Bao” has a dual meaning: A steamed bun as well as a treasure, according to Shi, who pursued her Chinese cultural adventure with producer Becky Neiman-Cobb (“Inside Out” editorial manager). It’s a fitting follow-up to Pixar’s Oscar-winning “Coco” and its love letter to Mexico and Día de los Muertos.
The maternal “Bao” is also a fitting companion piece to Brad Bird’s “The Incredibles 2,” in which Holly Hunter’s Helen/Elastigirl not only fights crime but also campaigns for the return of the supers, while husband Bob/Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson) has become a stay-at-home dad.
Shi, who was born in China and moved to Toronto as a two-year-old, entered the Pixar internship program and first worked as a story artist on “Inside Out.” With “Bao,” she learned that animating food was a great technical challenge (which Pixar first discovered on Bird’s Oscar-winning “Ratatouille”). However, Shi’s mom, Ningsha Zhong, a real-life dumpling master, served as consultant, and the animation team shot her folding techniques and then painstakingly recreated them in CG.