Pixar’s ‘Float’ is Not Just About Representation but an Authentic Experience

Representation is not just about putting a diverse array of faces on a product and calling it a day, but it is also about ensuring that this diversity actually empowers and puts authority into who it is telling the stories of. 

In the animated short, Float, a young father joyously plays with his son and soon quickly discovers that his baby sometimes floats — literally! But some time later, the baby has grown into an older child and the floating has now turned cumbersome. Embarrassed by the public’s jeering looks and judgment, the father cowers from the outside world and tries to keep his son away, but he also feels like he has lost control over his child’s behavior.

On an outing, the father loses his son in the middle of the playground and find that he is trying to interact with the park attendees — who all have varied, mixed reactions to his floating. The father finally grabs his son and screams at the child in frustration (the only piece of dialogue spoken in the film) that, “[he] can’t just be normal.” Dejectedly, the child descends back to the ground. Realizing what he has done, the father carries his son and cradles him on a swing set, slowly building up momentum to push him to float in the air again. In spite of the ongoing looks, the son returns to flight with a smile and his father runs around his child and laughs with him. 

Float is a metaphor on one parent’s experience raising a child who is on the autism spectrum. The floating ability in the short serves as a broad representation of the behavioral differences that might come with raising a child who is on the spectrum versus one who is not. Some days, the “floating” can serve as a hurdle in a society that is unfortunately not fully accommodating to those special needs. But on other days, as expressed through the father’s eventual appreciation of his son in the animated short, it can serve as a blessing. 

Director Bobby Rubio initially conceived the characters of his short as Caucasian, but he was later persuaded by producer Krissy Cababa to design them around a different story: his own.

Having been a storyboard artist at Pixar, Rubio has a child on the spectrum and he used his directorial debut to share that segment of his life with an audience. (Producer Cababa also worked as a producer for Loop, another Pixar short that centers on a nonverbal autistic teenage girl played by an autistic actress.)  

As a projection of Rubio himself, the father character in Float is visually presented as Filipino man (as with his son respectively), but this identity is neither spoken upon or further elaborated. This visual coding is significant because it is not important that this character should be “performing” as a Filipino man, but the fact that he simply just is. As one of the first Pixar films to star Filipino American characters, it is important that Float did not to simply use its time to solely explore the specifics of their ethnicity, but the actual multitudes they can both endure and enjoy as people. 

Float is also a breath of relief against the countless misrepresentations of the autism and ableist stereotypes in media, especially when the short was released on YouTube so close to the contentious conversation around the offensive portrayal of autism in Music, a musical drama film directed by singer-songwriter Sia. Despite Music somehow earning itself two nominations for the 2021 Golden Globe Awards, amidst sweeping, scathing reviews across many film critics, Float portrays an authentic, lived experience that Music does not. 

It is noteworthy as well that Float showcases an experience with autism specifically through the perspectives of persons of color. A report conducted by the Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring Network through the CDC notes that there is less recognition and proper diagnosis of autism among children of color compared to white children. The report notes this disparity is especially prevalent within Black and Hispanic communities, citing stigma, lack of accessibility to healthcare, and language barriers. That said, Float is just one person’s story: but it is a story that can possibly spark conversation on autism within the Asian American community — a topic that remains to have little to no visibility in mainstream entertainment media. 

One of several films to have been conceived through Pixar’s SparkShorts program, Float was initially released on November 12, 2019 on Disney+ for North America. It has since become available to watch in full for the wider public across various platforms. The short was also promoted again with Wind, another animated short that delves into a different Asian experience, in conjunction with a statement speaking against the surge of negative sentiment and violence against Asian Americans motivated by racist-driven misinformation around the COVID-19 pandemic. Although the Asian American community may have unifying elements that make us whole, we are a community shaped by different human beings of all sorts of backgrounds and lifestyles with stories to share.  

A victorious means to positive representation should not end with simply getting seats as the main characters if the directing chairs are not filled as well. In addition, representation can ring hollow without the proper research or authorship to help shape these stories come from a genuine place of knowing — and the missteps made along the way without that direction can truly show! 

Sometimes these stories do not have to always be epic, fantastical tales where a hero triumphs over mythical evils. Sometimes it is more impactful that these stories are more grounded in reality, such as issues that continue to be undermined and rarely discussed in greater conversations. And sometimes these stories can be just as simple, but still meaningful enough, as a scene of a parent raising their child.