Synopsis: A collection of 6 short films. Six filmmakers from underrepresented backgrounds were selected and provided with the opportunity to share their perspectives and creative visions that will show audiences what it means to be seen.
Directors: Aqsa Altaf, Hao Zheng, Ann Marie Pace, Stefanie Abel Horowitz, Jessica Mendez Siqueiros, Moxie Peng
Running Length: Each episode runs between 15-20 minutes
TMMM (Overall) Score: (8/10)
Review: Since its launch in November 2019, Disney+ has been a welcome resource for finding (most) of your favorite Disney films from the past as well as providing new content that has delivered on its promise to impress and inspire. While the Marvel series it has fostered so far have created the appropriate brouhaha and its first foray into the Star Wars serialized universe with The Mandalorian brought it early legitimacy, the streaming service has also done quite a lot to support new talent for the next generation. Recognizing the benefit of mentoring future bright minds, the company has made a concerted commitment to bringing more inclusive filmmaking programs to fruition and utilizing their new digital platform as an easy showcase for the finished products.
Disney+ subscribers were first exposed to this with the Sparkshorts series, an offshoot of Pixar in which the animation branch’s employees are given six months and a modest budget to develop their own short. While some early works that weren’t exclusive to this program premiered in theaters, all formal participants go right into the Disney+ queue for viewers to discover…and evidently many have because within two years Kitbull and Burrow have been nominated for an Oscar.
Encouraged by this success, the studio has now teamed with Panavision for the first season of Disney’s Launchpad which is now available.
According to the press notes,
Disney’s Launchpad is a collection of live-action shorts from a new generation of dynamic storytellers. Six filmmakers from underrepresented backgrounds were selected and provided with the opportunity to share their perspectives and creative visions that will show audiences what it means to be seen. The goal of Disney’s Launchpad is to diversify the types of stories that are being told and to give access to those who have historically not had it. Inspired by life’s journey, these first six shorts for Disney+ are based on the theme, “Discover.”
Providing the filmmakers with twelve months to complete the work and the resources, support, and top of the line film equipment courtesy of Panavision to make their dream a reality, the studio not only has given visibility to a population that isn’t always represented in film but done so without a lot of grand ceremony to it. If all six films were stuffy, hand-holding reminders to be culturally aware and sensitive then the initial message of representation would have been lost. While not all winners, each film does well by telling a story from an individual perspective where race or culture isn’t always the first thing that defines the characters.
American Eid – directed by Aqsa Altaf
Synopsis: Ameena, a homesick Muslim Pakistani immigrant, wakes up on Eid to find out she has to go to school.
Review: At the end of Ramadan is Eid or “Festival of Breaking the Fast” and this first short of the collection expects you to have done your homework (or do it after the fact like I did) to learn about the importance of this religious holiday in the Muslim community. It’s certainly a big deal for Ameena, the young immigrant girl who is spending her first Eid in America and wondering why she has to go to school when back in Pakistan they had the day off. Her older sister just prefers to be like a normal American teen and not take part in the usual festivities but Ameena just wants things to be as they were, going so far as to create a petition to have Eid recognized as a holiday at her school. There’s a blithe sweetness to Ameena’s quest not just to get the day off but to reconnect with her sister. The resolution to this one might have you reaching for the tissues.
Dinner is Served – directed by Hao Zheng
Synopsis: A Chinese student uncovers his true identity when trying out for a leadership role at a U.S. school.
Review: A number of these Launchpad episodes felt like short chapters from a longer film the director is interested in making and Dinner is Served is a great example of this. Xiaoyu is attending an elite boarding school in the U.S., hoping to train for a maître d’ position. The entirety of the 20-minute run time feels so self-contained for the small story being told but you can easily see it being just a part of a larger journey Xiaoyu undertakes as he comes into his own in the United States. For this particular section of his tale, he survives the rigors of self-doubt and slight setbacks to lead him on a path to success, until the reality of the world he has entered deals him a devastating blow, changing his future outlook. It may not end quite as strongly as it begins because it falls into some expected traps of too-pat developments, but the restraint shown in the first 2/3 is laudable.
Growing Fangs – directed by Ann Marie Pace
Synopsis: Val Garcia, a Mexican-American half human/half vampire teenager, struggles to fit in either world.
Review: Oddly enough, this was the one I thought I wouldn’t be able to get into, yet it turned out being my second favorite of the group and the first one I could conceivably see Disney seriously considering expanding into a full-length feature or even a series of its own. There’s an oddball tone to director Ann Marie Pace’s short that is a welcome change of pace from the previous episodes, introducing us to high school half human/half vampire teenager Val Garcia. Struggling with this duality in addition to her blossoming love for one of her classmates, Val is a people pleaser first and worries about herself second. This winds up causing more trouble than anything and Pace manages to consistently zig when we think she’s going to zag, making the twenty minutes fly by. I could have easily watched this for another 20 or even 40 minutes. Did I mention this was also riotously funny, especially an early family meal sequence that has a couple of true treasures in the laugh department?
Let’s Be Tigers – directed by Stefanie Abel Horowitz
Synopsis: Grieving for her mother, Avalon finds comfort when she’s put in charge of a 4-year-old for a night.
Review: The shortest of the offerings is also the most emotionally raw so I wound up being glad it wasn’t that long of a commitment. Admittedly, it wasn’t my favorite of the bunch, mostly because it didn’t feel as polished or complete of an experience as the others. That’s not to say director Stefanie Abel Horowitz doesn’t initiate some important conversations about death and what it’s like for those who grieve. When compared to the previous episodes, this has a slower pace and employs a less flashy style, allowing the performances to come out. There’s not a lot to the story, but Hororwitz and her cast have an easy flow with filling in some gaps of narrative when called to do so.
The Last of the Chupacabras – directed by Jessica Mendez Siqueiros
Synopsis: A lonely Mexican-American woman unknowingly summons a dark and ancient creature.
Review: Yes, I completely went out of order and watched this one first because I thought it was going to be a scary one. I’m totally guilty of actually thinking Disney handed over all these cameras and money so a director could make a splatter film about the Mexican creature from folklore. Instead, this is an eccentric tale of a woman who pushes a tamale cart who arrives home after another long day on her feet to her crafty home filled with puppets and creatures representing her culture. Somehow, she manages to conjure up a Chupacabra and proceeds to adopt it as her pseudo-pet for the evening, eventually using it to bite back at the tourists that gawk at her from their tour busses while taking her picture but otherwise pretending she isn’t there. You can see what director Jessica Mendez Siqueiros is getting at and from a production standpoint the short looks grand, but the zany story and wide-eyed acting of the leading actress made this one lower on the rung for me.
The Little Prince(ss) – directed by Moxie Peng
Synopsis: When Chinese kids Gabriel and Rob become friends, Rob’s dad questions Gabriel’s feminine behavior.
Review: Obviously saving the best for last, the first season of Disney’s Launchpad concludes with The Little Prince(ss) and, again, we’re wading in familiar water in this short from writer/director Moxie Peng. Tiny Chinese first grader Gabriel loves to wear pink and dance ballet, very different from his new friend, 2nd grader Rob who plays basketball but doesn’t have a true passion for it. Meeting on the bus one day, the boys become friends…which is OK by Gabriel’s dad but a problem for Rob’s. Objecting to Gabriel wearing “girly” clothes and “not acting like a boy”, Rob’s dad pays a visit to Gabriel’s home one night to deliver a message but winds up getting one himself. Remember that tissue box I told you to get out for American Eid, you’ll definitely want to have it handy for this one. Peng’s film might not feature the strongest performances (the children are beyond adorable but…yeah…) but it has the most direct pathway to your heart/mind message as a takeaway.
Season 2 of Disney’s Launchpad is already in the works and while this season had a theme of “Discover”, season 2 will be built around a different theme, “Connect”. Based on the overall strength of the initial run of episodes, I’ll be looking forward to what’s launching next.