Please don’t ask if I have a favorite SparkShort. I just can’t choose. (Maybe it’s “Kitbull.” But again, don’t ask)! But if you asked me which one is the most special to me, I’d have to choose “Float.” That’s the one I was lucky enough to watch in Pixar’s beautiful theater, where the ceiling glitters with gold stars. In fact, I was so excited about the prospect of seeing any one of the SparkShorts on a big screen that I gasped aloud when it was announced. And I was sitting in the front row, so Chris Wiggum, our host that night, heard and immediately singled me out. One of my finer moments, to be sure!
The SparkShorts series came at a pivotal moment in Pixar’s history. At a time when Hollywood at large has reckoned with abuses of power, Pixar has had to do the same. This short film program aims to level the playing field by giving opportunities to diverse voices behind the camera. “Float” was the first to premiere on Disney+ a few weeks ago, and it was also the first thing I watched when I downloaded the app. Nothing could replace the experience of seeing it in Pixar’s theater, but I just had to watch it over and over, and be enveloped by all the emotions it stirred in me.
“Float” is story artist Bobby Rubio’s first directorial effort. He’s Filipino, as are the characters in the short. In fact, it’s a deeply personal project inspired by Rubio’s relationship with his son. “Float” opens on a warm and golden afternoon. A father and his son enjoy the beautiful day, with the little boy taking a few wobbly steps. As the father blows on a dandelion, the delighted boy breaks into a smile and floats in the air. It’s a moment of innocent magic, and by that point, I was already in love. I just expected to be smiling contentedly for the rest of it, soaking up the warmth.
But then two parents pass by with their daughter, and their reaction to the boy in the air is one of confusion and alarm. That was the moment that my warm and fuzzy bubble burst. Uh, what’s the matter with these people? I thought. This boy can fly! The father did not share my feelings. He grabs his son from the air and holds onto him, retreats into their house, away from the neighbors’ stares.
The interior of the house is gray and drab, the golden haze gone. The years have passed and the little boy is a bit older now, drawing on the ceiling since he can float up there. His father is grim faced with lanky long hair and a beard. It’s clear that he hasn’t shaved or gotten a haircut in quite a while. He’s also frustrated by his son’s unique ability. He grabs him out of the air and places a backpack loaded with rocks onto him so he’ll remain on the ground. That’s his way of achieving some sort of “normalcy.”
But his son doesn’t stay earthbound for very long. Despite his father’s best efforts, he still continues to soar.
I had suspected that “Float” was a metaphor for autism. Bobby Rubio confirmed it for us during a panel with the SparkShorts filmmakers, and hearing him describe his experiences raising his son, struggling to accept his differences, made me choke up just as much as I did watching the short. “Float” may be about a father learning to accept his son, but I found another meaning in it. Autism is so misunderstood, and “Float” doesn’t shy away from that reality. But it also presents it as something magical like flying. Isn’t that amazing? This thing that makes you different, that other people find weird, is actually wonderful. It could be autism or anything else, and that’s also what makes “Float” so significant.
There’s just one line of dialogue spoken, and it’s devastating; I’d rank it up there with some of the most heart wrenching moments in Pixar’s full length films. That’s one of the things I love about these SparkShorts: they tell a lot of story in such a brief amount of time, and none of the poignancy is lost.
Be sure to watch the The Making of Float, also on Disney+. There’s some beautiful concept art and more background on the short.