launchpad

"Launchpad" explores themes of cultural diversity, death, race and sexual and gender identity in six short films.

The Walt Disney Company is the biggest player in the entertainment industry, and it’s trying to create a more inclusive space for filmmakers. In the company’s own words, the Disney Launchpad Shorts Incubator is “providing a platform for diverse writers and directors to create short films for Disney+.” The first season of shorts — released on the streaming platform May 28 — is a prime example of this effort.

“Launchpad,” a collection of six short films, explores complex themes of race, religion, death and identity. Some of the shorts exceeded expectations, while others were strange and a bit more abstract — but they were all enjoyable, impactful and worth watching.

“Dinner is Served” by Hao Zheng

The first short film, “Dinner is Served,” tells the story of Xiaoyu (Qi Sun), a Chinese student attending a prestigious boarding school in the U.S. Xiaoyu’s friends, Gang (Ben Wang) and Mei (Briana Liu), don’t understand his desire to become the maitre’d in the school dining room, but Xiaoyu wants to prove his worth. 

He prepares diligently and receives encouragement from the headmaster, Mr. Gustafson (Ray Wise), saying he could serve as a role model for other international students. When the time comes, Xiaoyu makes some mistakes, but the headmaster gives him a second chance. In a heartbreaking twist, Xiaoyu overhears Mr. Gustafson talking about hiring him just to use his picture in school brochures to boost admissions and diversity statistics. 

Xiaoyu calls out the school and sings a Chinese anthem in Mandarin with Gang and Mei that mirrors Xiaoyu’s decision to not let the school use him for profit. While it may not carry the same emotional weight in English-speaking audiences, translated lyrics like “I refuse to go down a planned road / I yearn to share my beautiful soul” in particular pair well with the short’s inspiring message to be proud of one’s identity, and that theme carries through the other shorts.

“The Last of the Chupacabras” by Jessica Mendez Siqeiros

“The Last of the Chupacabras” is one of the stranger shorts in the collection, but it’s touching, nonetheless. Chepa (Melba Martinez) is a Mexican-American woman who sells tamales from a push cart, representing the last of many others — “chupacabras” — who did the same. However, local tourists see her as a rare commodity. She lives alone and tells puppets about her day, only to summon a large, animated puppet of the mythical Chupacabra one night.

Chepa takes in Chupacabra — or “Chup,” as she calls him — as her pet, and they keep each other company. The next day, Chup goes out with Chepa to sell her tamales, only to discover Chepa’s very private neighbor, Nainai (Cici Lau), has a pet Chinese dragon. The two women bond over shared yet unique identities as people of color and laugh at how their protective pets bewilder the tourists. “The Last of the Chupacabras” is certainly an outside-the-box way to tell a story about culture that first comes off as strange, but its touching characters provide an accessible way for viewers to sympathize and reflect.

“American Eid” by Aqsa Atla

In “American Eid,” Ameena (Shanessa Khawaja) is a young Muslim Pakistani immigrant who’s celebrating Eid, the end of the holy month of Ramadan, in the U.S. for the first time. She’s shocked to discover that her school doesn’t observe the holiday with canceled classes, while her older sister Zainab (Jenna Qureshi) is preoccupied with fitting in at their new school. 

Throughout the day, Ameena wears her traditional clothes and collects signatures for a petition to create a school holiday next year. On the other hand, Zainab, who’d rather wear typical American clothes and go by “Z,” doesn’t want to celebrate with Ameena and tries to get back on the dance team without revealing she missed practices while fasting for Ramadan. Ameena’s disappointed in Zainab but Zainab’s mad at Ameena, thinking she’s pushy. 

The next day, Ameena’s teachers throw a party for Eid at school, where she teaches her classmates about the holiday, and Zainab embraces her religion and joins her. The opposite perspectives of the sisters in the beginning create tension that the girls beautifully resolve by the short’s end. Overall, “American Eid” has an uplifting, educational, feel-good story that makes it stand out from the rest of the collection. 

“Let’s Be Tigers” by Stefanie Abel Horowitz

“Let’s Be Tigers” follows Avalon (Otmara Marrero) as she babysits Noah (Dash McCloud) while his Dad (Greg Worswick) and Papá (Mike Millan) go out for the night. Avalon has fun taking care of Noah, but she has a hard time focusing because of her mother’s recent death. When she leaves Noah to start a bath, he runs outside and into the street, but Avalon saves him in time.

At bedtime, Avalon tells Noah a story about a young girl whose favorite tree was struck by lightning, mirroring how her mother passed away. Noah’s naturally curious about what happens when people die, and Avalon explains that those people don’t come back. However, she does so in a way that’s not scary, and the two end up comforting each other. Their sweet relationship is heartwarming to watch.

“The Little Prince(ss)” by Moxie Peng

Gabriel (Kalo Moss) is a young Chinese boy who befriends another Chinese student, Rob (Ching Yin Ryan Hu), at school in “The Little Prince(ss).” While Rob plays basketball, Gabriel enjoys ballet, plays with dolls and has a pink backpack. When Rob’s dad Chen (Evan Lai) sees that Gabriel gave Rob a pink bandage and that Gabriel doesn’t fit the mold of a typical boy, he confronts the family to tell him that he doesn’t think it’s right for Gabriel to be that way.

Chen’s opinions are uncalled for, and he inappropriately speaks his mind in front of Gabriel. On the bright side, Gabriel’s father, Wang (Brian Yang), gives the best response, saying, “I don’t give a crap what you think about my kid … I think whatever he does, he will do it nicely and beautifully.” Wang’s defense of his son is an exemplary way to model and embrace acceptance. The short’s ending is just as beautiful, as Gabriel and Rob first seem uninterested in reconnecting, but instead continue to become great friends.

“Growing Fangs” by Ann Marie Pace

“Growing Fangs” utilizes a clever metaphor to present the duality of identity. Mexican-American teen Val Garcia (Keyla Monterroso Meija) is half human, half vampire and she just started attending a high school for monsters. As she struggles to balance her friendship with Jimmy (Gilberto Ortiz), a human, and find her place at monster school; Val’s experience mirrors feelings that others may experience as someone of two cultures.

Val chugs a bottle of blood as if it’s water to impress her vampire crush, Elsie (Grace Song), which sends her to the nurse with a stomach ache her human biology can’t handle. It’s not until then that Val realizes she’s not “half” anything. She’s fully human and fully vampire, Mexican and American. Each factor makes up who she is, and she realizes she shouldn’t have to hide any part of herself to be accepted. Her courage encourages Dora (Olivia Sullivent), who reveals she’s half werewolf. Like some of the other shorts, Val’s story serves as inspiration to embrace all of one’s identity and complexities.

The Disney Launchpad is a great way for unique stories and filmmakers to reach a wider audience. As the program accepts applications for the next season of shorts, there’s no doubt that more talented storytellers will share their poignant work with the world.

Contact Michael Russo at russomw@dukes.jmu.edu. For more on the culture, arts and lifestyle of the JMU and Harrisonburg communities, follow the culture desk on Twitter and Instagram @Breeze_Culture.