Spoilers below for “Bao,” the short film shown before Disney’s THE INCREDIBLES 2. (Yes, it’s only 8 minutes long. Yes, it’s still worth the spoiler warning.)
Pixar shorts, despite their consistent technical excellence, have always been a narrative mixed bag. In the early days, that was forgivable, more or less. (“Geri’s Game” was a funny-once, but contrast that to the similarly simple but far more affecting animated short “Kiwi.”) Later on, you’d end up with clever (“For the Birds”) alternating with severe WTF-ness (“Boundin'”). The shorts were always interesting, but they didn’t, on the whole, deliver a life-changing theatrical experience.
When we went to see THE INCREDIBLES 2, I didn’t really expect more from the short than phenomenal animation. But Pixar gave me “Bao,” a beautiful, wordless tale of parental love and heartbreak and the mistakes we make with the people who matter most to us.
The story, as told, begins with Our Heroine making dumplings for breakfast. Her husband wolfs his down, bids her farewell, and bolts the house with a briefcase. Left alone, Our Heroine munches dejectedly on her own dumplings–until one, when she takes a bite out of it, begins to cry. And thus she becomes a parent.
Mom worries, when Bao is small, in entirely appropriate ways. She protects him from being eaten by others. She fixes him when he becomes smashed and misshapen. She makes sure he eats properly and grows. They do everything together, secure in their mutual love and complementary needs.
But Bao grows older and more curious, and less in need of comfort and protection from predators. Bao, in the way of all children, begins to seek out more than his mother’s world, carving out his own interests and needs separate from hers. And Mom, crestfallen, sees nothing but the risk and the change and the loss of that tiny companion who needed her so much.
It’s allegory, of course, as becomes apparent at the end of the story (but not before a pack of confused children in the theater we were in asked, loud and confused, “Did she just eat her son?”). And I was crying so much that my 14-year-old put her arms around me and stayed like that for the first ten minutes of the feature film.
(My kid, by the way, also wanted to know why Mom would do such a thing. I told her if she ever chose to have kids she’d understand. I also promised I wouldn’t eat her, but she didn’t honestly seem worried about that, so perhaps I haven’t messed up entirely.)
I’ve written before about the severely weird experience that is parenting. On some level, I spend most days in a state of barely-controled panic, although the older she gets the easier it is to logic the terror away. Because I know, as one does, that it’s the role of a child to pull away and become beautifully distinct from their parents, and there’s tremendous pleasure in watching that happen.
But I know why Mom ate her little dumpling. And I know why, in the coda, he brought her a box of pastries, and why they both wept as they ate them.
Imagine my amazement when I read on the internet all the people who found “Bao” confusing. It’s blamed on cultural blindness (Bao’s family is Chinese), and okay, if you say so; but goodness, if you’ve had a child, or a sibling, or a puppy, for pity’s sake, I do not understand how this lovely little film could be at all confusing. You don’t have to be a helicopter parent yourself (I’m not, no really, I promise, I’m trying) to recognize that sometimes protectiveness turns into possessiveness, and sometimes the best way to destroy something is to try to keep it from changing. And you don’t have to be a parent at all to remember that pain and mistakes are a critical part of growing up, and being insulated from them can be detrimental.
Not everyone is part of a family built from love. Not everyone had a childhood where being overprotected was a danger. Not everybody is going to watch this film and see their own life in both the child and the mother: the push-me, pull-you of changing relationships, the way love can hinder as well as help, the small gestures that make up forgiveness and rebuilding.
But for me? “Bao” was about my biggest fears and my biggest flaws and what I wish to never do to my child and what I know, despite that conviction, I’m capable of doing. And the ending, with the family and its new addition around the table, offers a little spark of hope to every parent who’s screwed up in the name of pure, selfish love.