In the world of Pixar’s Onward, magic is so commonplace it’s become unremarkable. There was a time when noble wizards battled fierce dragons in heroic quests, but then someone discovered electricity, and putting on robes and casting spells started to seem kind of old hat. There’s something else that’s so well-established that it passes almost without notice, too: the existence of LGBTQ people.
In the past several years, the Walt Disney Co. and its various subsidiaries have made a public display of their push for inclusivity. They’ve recast The Lion King with black voice actors and Mulan with real live Asians, and they hired women and people of color to direct entries in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But when it comes to including characters in their globally oriented entertainments who might not be, strictly speaking, heterosexual, Disney has been dragging its feet while loudly trumpeting the fact that it’s dragging them slightly faster than it used to.
From the “exclusively gay moment” in the live-action Beauty and the Beast to a kiss between two minor female characters in last year’s The Rise of Skywalker, each baby step has been preceded by a flotilla of coverage proclaiming the advance—and each has been followed by the inevitable sense of confusion and betrayal when viewers see the movie and realize, That’s it?
It’s not just Disney. The makers of Star Trek Beyond were eager to make sure you knew that its version of Sulu was gay, even though they edited out the only physical sign of his affections. But for a company that has made wokeness a key component of its global brand, Disney’s failure to serve up more than table scraps, even as other areas of the culture surged past it in terms of representing the diverse world we actually live in, went from galling to unacceptable. “The only way to talk about these benchmarks is dismissively,” Vanity Fair critic K. Austin Collins wrote in response to Star Wars’ lesbian kiss: “too little, too late.”
The problem is often less with the movies themselves than with the self-congratulatory buildup to them. Although Beauty and the Beast’s moment is a fleeting one, David Canfield wrote in Slate that the character’s “queerness is more explicit than you might expect,” and within the cloistered world of superhero blockbusters, there is something modestly (perhaps extremely modestly) progressive about an Avengers movie pausing its world-ending clangor long enough to listen to an ordinary man’s grief about the loss of his male partner. But the directors who include, and sometimes fight for, these moments can’t seem to resist heralding their arrivals with toots on their own horns, the way Endgame co-director Joe Russo did in advance of his one-scene appearance as the movie’s unnamed Grieving Man. Marvel’s The Eternals won’t even be out until November, but the studio is already touting its inclusion of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s first same-sex kiss. “Everyone cried on set,” actor Haaz Sleiman told New Now Next. “For me it’s very important to show how loving and beautiful a queer family can be.” The countdown to disappointment starts now.
There’s a lesbian character in Onward, a police officer voiced by Lena Waithe, but the most revolutionary thing that Pixar has done in advance of the movie’s release is not tell anyone about it. A day before the review embargo on the movie lifted, the closest thing to a relevant search result was a Reddit post from a user with the subject “possible lesbian couple in Pixar’s Onward??” featuring an ambiguous-at-best screenshot from the movie’s trailer. Representation-starved Pixar fans have been down this road before, seizing on the image of two women in Finding Dory and suggesting they might be the animation studio’s first lesbian moms. (The film’s director declined to specify, saying only that “They can be whatever you want them to be.”) But we don’t need to speculate about Waithe’s Office Spector. We know because she tells us. When she and her partner, voiced by Ali Wong, pull over a driver who claims he was distracted because his girlfriend’s sons have been acting up, she commiserates, “My girlfriend’s daughter got me pulling my hair out.”
That line isn’t the point of the scene. In fact, it goes by so fast you could barely notice it. But that’s why it works so well. The film doesn’t pause to let it sink in or isolate the moment with a cut for emphasis. It passes unremarked, because in this world, it’s accepted as a fact of life. Some babies have two daddies, and some babies have two mommies, even if those mommies happen to be centaurs or elves.
It’s true that Waithe’s character is, like pretty much every character in every Pixar movie, essentially sexless; her girlfriend never appears on screen, so whatever intimacy the two of them might share happens only in the viewer’s imagination. And there’s a long history of Hollywood movies making neutering the price for LGBTQ characters’ entrance on screen. (See: the gay best friend in innnumerable’90s rom-coms.) But the focus on a single public display of affection has allowed Hollywood to skirt the work of actually writing those characters, and it makes it too easy to lose those moments and everything that comes along with them. The Rise of Skywalker stages the kiss between Amanda Lawrence’s Commander D’Acy and a female resistance fighter as a last-minute reveal, as if we’re supposed to be bowled over by the idea that Lawrence’s character, who also appeared in The Last Jedi, was a lesbian all along. But what if that moment got cut out, as it did in Star Trek Beyond? Would that mean she wasn’t? Or would Lawrence have been trotted out for a series of defensive interviews explaining that her character really was gay, but movies are complicated and you have to serve the story—and who knows, maybe they’ll include it in the deleted scenes.
It’s important not to make too much of Onward’s exclusively gay moment—or even to make too much of the movie not making too much of it. After all, children’s animated movies, especially those from gay filmmakers—including ParaNorman and the How to Train Your Dragon films—have been quietly including moments like this for years, without anyone patting themselves on the back. It also doesn’t change the fact that Pixar’s protagonists have always appeared straight (to the extent that they’ve appeared to have any orientation at all), or that the company was, until very recently, built around the legend of a creative genius who also fostered a culture of sexism. But perhaps they’ve learned this one lesson at least: It’s better to let other people take notice of your achievements than to fall short of expectations you built up yourself.
For still more discussion of Onward, listen to Forrest Wickman, Sam Adams, and Marissa Martinelli talk through the plot in spoiler-ific detail on the Spoiler Special podcast.