Pixar bring us another short film that explores diverse experiences, though ambiguity blunts its impact.
Pixar’s selection on Disney+ includes many of the company’s award-wining short films. The newest addition was Float, by Bobby Rubio. Many of Pixar’s critically lauded short films deal with the fraught relationships between parents and children. Think of last year’s Oscar winner, Bao, where a mother deals with the loneliness an empty nest and adopts a little dumpling boy. Float tells a very personal story about raising a child with autism, suffused by magical realism.
A young father takes his little boy outside to explore their yard. When he watches his father puff on a dandelion, the boy suddenly lights up and begins to float as well. Confused, the father tries to hide his child’s oddity from neighbors. One day at the park, it comes to a head and he comes to terms with his boy’s special qualities.
While I thought Bao looked a bit too plastic in its glossy animation, there’s no denying that the company puts a high shine on their animation. The facial animations are expressive and handsome. The particle effects for the dandelion seeds and the way the boy’s hair becomes windswept when he floats look great. Water effects, such as tears, still look a bit false, but its a minor note.
The music sweeps you along, especially during the flight segments. There is only one line of dialogue in the film, as is typical of many Pixar shorts. I thought it was a detriment; the film really needs the one line, so the faux-silent film aspects come off as affected or sentimental.
On my first viewing, I did not pick up explicitly that the child was neurodivergent. In the first segment, the child is so young that it’s impossible to tell. In the later segment, certain behaviors that may point to neurodivergence are either still too hard to distinguish or can be explained by the fact that the dad has seems to have been “sheltering” the kid from social interaction (out of fear of exposing his flying ability) that I certainly didn’t jump to a ND conclusion.
That first viewing felt like a story about a precocious kid with flight being an obvious metaphor. It actually felt more important that they were non-white – the way the father hides him away felt like a reflection of the extra scrutiny faced by non-white folks. As such, it seemed like a bit of a facile story about accepting exceptional status – think Pa Kent disastrously telling Clark to hide his abilities at all cost in Man of Steel.
After seeing the final dedication and accompanying featurette, the message deepened. The little tells all now seemed obviously to point to the child being on the spectrum – but of course it wasn’t obvious the first time and rarely is in real life. Knowing the specifics, the wonder and shame of the father stood out in starker contrast, and the message of acceptance had more emotional heft.
I can understand wanting to bury the lede on the part of the creative team. The whole message of acceptance gets tarnished by too much fanfare. That being said, I think the films doesn’t foreground its premise very well. Without immediately knowing it’s about a father and autistic child, the message feels a bit generic. The events also seem a bit monstrous, especially the use of high-contrast when the father literally hides his child in the shadows.
Once you know what you’re dealing with, Float is resonant and effective. I liked the visuals, and the characters are vulnerable in a way that you don’t get in animation often. Pixar has done a fantastic job of using their shorts to tell stories you don’t often see in the mainstream – or see handled poorly. Float is a nice addition to those stories, but could have acclimated the viewer better to avoid diluting the power of the film.