The existence of “Out,” an animated short film on Disney+ about a gay man’s coming-out story, might come as a shock given recent barbs thrown at the studio. Disney+ shuttled another coming-out story, “Love, Simon” spinoff series “Love, Victor,” to Hulu due to its mature themes. The platform also covered up Daryl Hannah’s naked rear in “Splash!,” and cut a joke about casting couches from “Toy Story 2.”
But “Out” illustrates that Disney+ content can be both family-friendly and deal with serious issues, and it’s a historic moment also because it gives animation studio Pixar its first-ever gay lead.
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“We’ve always approached this as family film. It’s about common family issues that are true to human experience. It’s a story that is a reflection of truths that exist in the world,” “Out” producer Max Sachar said in a phone interview. “When we first created it for the folks at Disney+, I don’t think there was any hesitation that they felt the same way, that this is a family film that fits in with the rest of Pixar and Disney films that are also on that platform.”
This quirky and surprisingly moving short film comes from writer/director Steven Clay Hunter, making his debut after decades as an animator on Pixar films. Packaged as part of Pixar’s SparkShorts program designed to lift emerging voices, “Out” is a nine-minute step toward normalizing gay characters in animated films for youngsters, and quietly revolutionary in its own way.
“I didn’t come out until I was 27, and I’m 51 now,” Hunter said. “I wanted to make something I could show my seven-year-old self, like something that when I was young I could look at and see myself in because there was nothing when I grew up.” Hunter was raised in a small town in Canada where, he said, “there was nothing that told me being gay was okay. I buried it. I crushed it. It took years to finally deal with it.”
The main character in “Out” is Greg, a young gay guy who’s not out to his parents and is about to move into the big city to live with his boyfriend, Manuel. Unexpectedly, Greg’s bubbly parents show up unannounced with a tray of pizza casserole to lend a helping hand in the move. This finds Greg scrambling to cover evidence of his sexuality, and his relationship, including a framed photo of the happy couple, and a calendar of sexy firemen. The film ultimately has a happy ending, despite some hijinks along the way, that finds the family coming together to celebrate Greg and Manuel.
Sachar and Hunter said they experienced no resistance toward the themes and content of the film, including a scene that shows Greg and Manuel kissing. It’s hardly guy-on-guy sex, sure, but given the lack of gay representation on screens it’s still shocking. After working on storyboards starting in 2018, they took the material to Pete Docter, Pixar’s chief creative officer, who loved the project and allowed them to run with it.
“There was nothing but support for the movie. I know you want a nightmare story, but there isn’t any,” Hunter said.
“Out” was also designed to flip the script on the often fatalistic portrayals of gay, confused, or closeted people coming to terms with their sexuality in movies and TV. Think films like “Brokeback Mountain” or “Boys Don’t Cry,” where the consequence of coming out is you die.
“The earliest [example] for me was ‘E.T.,’ the scene where Elliot calls his brother ‘penis breath,'” said Hunter. “The mom laughs, and everybody laughs, and you’re laughing, but also, like, that’s bad. Penis breath equals gay equals bad. That was the equation when I was younger.”
There have been a handful of (extremely) fleeting moments of queerness in other recent Disney stories. In 2017’s “Beauty and the Beast,” there’s a short cut in a ballroom scene to two men dancing. In “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker,” there’s a blink-and-it’s-gone lesbian kiss. Pixar took this on more directly with a lesbian character in “Onward,” a purple cyclops voiced by Lena Waithe.
“Those were valid attempts by filmmakers for representation. I think they were trying,” Hunter said. “And that wasn’t the focus of those films. I think the more we actually sit down and write stories for with queer characters in mind, it’ll feel more honest.”
Hunter also said that in his 20-plus years at Pixar working on films including “A Bug’s Life,” the “Toy Story” series, and “WALL-E,” there has “always” been discussion about increasing LGBT representation in the animation studio’s slate. But “Out” is a historic leap forward.
“It comes down to the storytellers, and Pixar has always been a director-driven studio. And those directors are telling stories that they want to tell. And most of them are straight,” Hunter said. “They’re not coming from a queer perspective. You need that representation in order to tell those stories. Otherwise it’s forced.”
“Out” is currently streaming on Disney+.
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