Over the last 18 months, Disney+ has reshaped the conversation surrounding new streaming content. Shows like The Mandalorian and WandaVision have transformed the way a streaming channel can connect to audiences. But the key difference is that making new Star Wars shows and Marvel content is bound to get high engagement among people who are predisposed to like these franchises from the start. It’s taken a little longer for Disney+ to show support for less represented filmmakers and audiences, to take a risk on something unexpected. Though it’s a bit overdue, the new short-film series Launchpad is a good leap in that direction.

Launchpad, premiering today on Disney+, is the combined result of the work of six young filmmakers, all from underrepresented backgrounds. Each of the shorts – all of which are roughly 15 to 20 minutes long – boasts a distinct and personal flavor that automatically makes them more memorable than a good chunk of the new content you can find on Disney+. So much of the new programming there feels less personal and more about marking off a box on the IP checklist. But the six films in Launchpad feel like they needed to be made, that these filmmakers had to tell these stories and were able to secure such a massive platform.

Though all six of the shorts are solid, the true highlight is “Growing Fangs”, from writer/director Ann Marie Pace. The story is about Val, a young Mexican-American girl who’s desperate to keep a fairly disturbing secret from a friend of hers – she’s half-human, and half-vampire. The way Pace builds out the world of “Growing Fangs” in just the span of 20 minutes, as well as her command of pacing and the camera (with a fair amount of subversive and funny visual gags), implies that this short could bear the weight of turning into a feature film, with her behind the helm.

But all six of the shorts are effectively constructed by their respective filmmakers, and perhaps most surprisingly, they don’t all end with a traditional, overly familiar happy ending that often feels like a mandate for Disney stories. “Dinner is Served”, from co-writer/director Hao Zheng, starts off with what seems like the prototypical hero’s journey of Disney storytelling: a Chinese student at an American boarding school pursues the ambition of becoming the boarding school’s next maitre’d. But the film’s commentary on racial tokenism is surprisingly subtle, concluding in a bittersweet, daring and thoughtful ending sure to inspire debate and discussion.

Both “The Little Prince(ss)” and “Let’s Be Tigers”, too, grapple with darker emotions in ways that are necessary for a younger audience and valuable to see spotlighted at all. “The Little Prince(ss)” presents a harmless relationship among young boys that becomes soured when the overly conservative father of one is bothered by how the other likes ballet and princesses. “Let’s Be Tigers” tackles a young woman’s grief as filtered through an eventful night of babysitting a neighborhood boy. “American Eid”, in which a sibling relationship is mended over the annual Eid celebration as two girls encourage their white-bread neighborhood to understand the holiday; and “The Last of the Chupacabras”, where an elderly woman conjures up a real version of the mythical Mexican creature of the title, are also strong, clear cases of shining a light on underrepresented backgrounds.

These are all, in short, extremely effective calling cards for these six filmmakers. If each of these young directors aren’t getting new projects, at Disney or elsewhere, lined up in the weeks and months to come, it’s going to be concerning at least. The concept behind Launchpad is clear – give these filmmakers a boost they might not otherwise have by giving them access to bigger budgets, creative guidance, and casting. In that respect, the series is a resounding success so far. You sincerely cannot find anything like these six shorts anywhere else on Disney+, and it’s a wonderful thing that you now can. The real challenge now is on Disney, to properly give these filmmakers the boost they so richly deserve once the shorts are available to watch. All told, if you watch the six Launchpad shorts, it will be the equivalent of a two-hour film. (Cruella, also arriving today, is 134 minutes. These six shorts are shorter, combined, and much more enjoyable.) 

18 months in, you might figure you have a good idea of what to expect when you visit Disney+. Launchpad is a genuinely exciting zig where the streamer usually zags. If you want to watch stories that are truly different and unexpected – and hey, what a bonus, original – you need to make time for these shorts. Disney, with its vast marketing machine, should be shouting about this series from the rooftops. If there’s any justice, we’ll see these young filmmakers in action again soon…and Launchpad will soon get a second season of short films from more young artists with distinctive voices.

/Film Rating: 8 out of 10

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About the Author

Josh Spiegel is a Phoenix-based critic & writer. He's one of the hosts of Mousterpiece Cinema, a podcast about Disney films. He's also written a book of criticism on Pixar, titled Yesterday is Forever: Nostalgia and Pixar Animation Studios.