Could Really Radical Programming Come From Disney? I was skeptical when I heard about “Launchpad” (Streaming on Disney+ Streaming), the studio’s new initiative to support and uplift underrepresented filmmakers. Historically, Disney hasn’t had a strong track record for representation (well, which one at Hollywood studios?). In fact, it Recently Added Disclaimers About racist stereotypes in older movies from its streaming library, including “Dumbo” and “Peter Pan.” Inclusivity efforts have only really grown over the years, and yet, they haven’t been without missteps — the live-action “Beauty and the Beast,” for example, Disney promoted Josh Gad’s Le Fu as the first gay character, only to make his quirks outrageously vague and brief.
And so comes “Launchpad,” a collection of short films that may have been part of Disney’s efforts to correct some of the past mistakes. “Launchpad” finalists – selected from a pool of more than 1,000 applicants – were given a budget and equipment, and were paired with consultants from various Disney divisions. But I hope Disney delivers on the “Launchpad” title, nurturing directors for future opportunities, both at home and away, and I look forward to seeing that on the streaming site and on Disney’s social media accounts. How will the filmmakers be supported? Because I’ve seen all six short films from the inaugural season, all working on the theme “Discover” and there’s certainly a lot of promise here. These movies, all 20 minutes or less, mostly come from minority filmmakers and explore non-American traditions and LGBTQ themes — themes I wish were more prevalent, or at least more sensitive, in Disney’s big releases. has been amply controlled.
“American Eid” by Aksa Altaf follows a young Pakistani girl named Amina (Shanesa Khawaja), who is disheartened to learn that her American school does not celebrate the Muslim holiday Eid. Her older sister tries to erase her legacy in favor of assimilation, but Amina’s heartfelt plea to make Eid a school holiday instils a sense of belonging and tradition in both of them. The film wears the awkwardness of inexperience, but charms with honesty. It’s not hard to understand that the story means a lot to its director. Stephanie Abel Horowitz’s short, “Let’s Be Tigers,” is also an earnest entry, dealing with a babysitter’s grief over losing her mother, and how she communicates that grief to the young boy she took care of that evening. It’s surprisingly sad for Disney.
The two shorts are Chinese American. “Dinner Is Served”, directed by Hao Zheng, follows a young man (Qi Sun) who navigates the very white and upper-class world of being a maitre d at his boarding school – the world he would have stood in. During the trial, friend Zheng surprises him by skipping the standard Disney story line of an underdog’s saccharin victory and instead highlighting that some victories are just for optics. Representation can be shallow, and those in charge will pat themselves on the back for it.
Moxie Peng’s “The Little Prince(ess)” is one of the highlights of the bunch, as it delicately explores the notion of gender through two 7-year-olds, Gabriel (Kalo Moss) and Rob (Ching Yin Ryan Hu). it shows. Gabriel’s family supports the child’s interest in ballet, but Rob’s conservative Chinese father struggles to see outside his rigid view of masculine expectations. Gender fluidity is a range that still has much room for exploration, and it is particularly interesting to see it in the context of Asian American families.
Then there are two Mexican American shorts. “The Last of the Chupacabras”, by Jessica Mendez Siqueiros, is a lovely depiction of modern Mexican folklore. Living in a fictional town where anything deviating from the white American norm is shocking, an old woman discovers an ancient creature called the Chupacabra. Is the result more adorable than terrifying.
But the real standout is “Growing Fangs,” another Mexican American story. Like “Chupcabras”, it has supernatural elements, but Ann Marie Pace, who wrote and directed, illustrates the identity crisis of a Mexican American through a comedy about a teenage girl who finds her human with her vampire side. Struggles to balance the side. Val transfers from a normal public school to a monster school, where she tries to fit in and hide her human side. In just 19 minutes, Pace creates such a vibrant world—a glimpse of a bigger story that’s better than most TV pilots. You immediately get the family dynamics (human father, vampire mother and grandmother, and a particularly bloodthirsty little sister) and a sense of hierarchy at school, with the popular vampire cheerleader and a benevolent witch who serves as the school nurse. And helps to feel Val. is human and Vampire, “half” nothing. As Val, Keyla Monteroso Mejia is a charismatic star with precise comedic facial timing. I’d be disappointed if “Growing Fangs” isn’t made into a feature film or better yet, a bilingual series like “Jane the Virgin” that touches on elements of heartfelt family drama and telenovela comedy. And I’d be very disappointed that Paes’ name, or Mejia’s, won’t be seen on bigger projects anytime soon. “Launchpad,” do your thing.