After lighting up the internet with a trailer 2 months ago, yesterday saw the release of Beth David and Esteban Bravo’s Ringling College graduation animation In a Heartbeat, and in just 24 hours the full 4 minute film has gone on to become a sensation online as well, with over 2.5M plays. A charming school-boy romance, the 3D animated short is extremely polished, but its cute character design is an oft-imitated style familiar to fans of Pixar, and on the surface doesn’t differentiate itself from dozens of other similar student shorts. However the young creative duo have managed to capture the imagination of worldwide audiences by daring to depict something that the big studios, despite their recent forays into diversity have failed to—a gay lead character.
In the film a shy bookish boy is struck by affection for his handsome young classmate. Content to to perhaps nurse his crush in secret, the boy’s heart has other ideas in mind. Becoming a sentient character in its own right, it leaps out of his body in repeated attempts to get close to the object of its fascination, leading to humorously contorted slapstick sequences where our main characters attempts to stifle the impulses of his heart. Along the way he must confront the fear of rejection by his love, as well as a concern about of his sexuality being discovered by the school at large.
While we’ve seen LGBTQ storytelling invade most every other genre imaginable, this is the first time I can recall seeing it in a kid-centric animation, and it is honestly not a surprise that there is so much pent-up demand from audiences. This kind of animated storytelling is so dominant in youth-targeted media that Disney has, in many ways, a monopoly over the imaginations of children. However depicting queerness in these stories has been a terrible taboo—when present at all, it is only barely hinted at. This is understandable on a business level, while we’ve come a long way in the acceptance of sexual preference as a society, there are still large segments of the populace whom decry the normalization of Queer sexuality, and the large budget films of Disney or Pixar are trying to appeal to as broad of audiences as possible. It is ironically unfortunate however, because childhood is obviously when the initial formation of sexual preference emerges, and the fear of ostracization is highest amongst LGBTQ persons. Positive depictions of LGBTQ characters inarguably would be MOST valuable in children’s animation, if the goal is to reassure these individuals of their acceptance by society.
While it is the subject of In a Heartbeat that has contributed most to its surprise success, I don’t want to downplay what a quality short David and Bravo have produced. While it is a bit more twee than this site’s usual programming, it is an incredibly accomplished student animation that would recommend itself on the merits of design, fluidity and storytelling regardless. I’m a sucker for action direction, and the slapstick sequences showcase a strong eye for movement and composition on the behalf of the directors, and left me with a big smile on my face. I have a feeling that we might remember In a Heartbeat in upcoming years as an important film, but it also helps that its a great one.