Animated sci-fi short Blush is small, cute and full of heart. And it’s also a gauntlet thrown down to let the competition know Apple TV+ is getting serious about winning awards.
The long-in-the-making story debuted Friday on Apple’s streaming service, and it definitely swerves into Pixar territory — for better or worse.
In the 10-minute film, a young horticulturist in space crash-lands on a tiny uninhabited planet with one mission: Make plant life grow. If plants can survive on this desolate little rock, that means oxygen, which means humans can flourish.
After his first miserable day, an alien shows up and does something miraculous: She makes his dying little plant grow with her very essence. Soon, their little planet is a little paradise and the two have made a small family. Of course, no good thing can last.
When I was a child my family would travel
Pixar, the groundbreaking animation studio once owned by late Apple CEO Steve Jobs, was founded back in the mid-’80s on the creation of a simple short film called The Adventures of André & Wally B. When Pixar conquered the visual medium and unleashed Toy Story, in some cities The Adventures of André & Wally B. played in front of the feature as both a primer and something of a humble brag: “Look how far we’ve come!”
This proved a popular enough move that, for the premiere of Toy Story 2, the studio screened the feature with Luxo Jr. That short exhibited the kind of pace-setting aesthetic model that most subsequent Pixar features followed — a comfy, cozy, kitschy look at everyday things. You’ll find it in the unadorned house in Toy Story, the office drone life of Monsters, Inc. and Inside Out, and the unkempt homes of Soul and Up.
The Pixar Short has been fun for some and something to dread for others. Take, for instance, the incessantly sentimental likes of Lava, the famously cloying short that played before Moana. The bizarreness of its shapeless volcano hero falling for a voluptuous and too-detailed female mountain struck some as the nadir of the Pixar brand. Leave Pixar’s filmmakers to their own devices, to be cute, and some dreadful things can happen.
Pixar is part of Blush’s DNA
Blush is not an official Pixar creation. However, it was produced by Pixar head honcho John Lasseter, who directed Toy Story all those years ago, and who was lately called out for spearheading a culture of sexual harassment at the dream-making studio. Lasseter allegedly was so bad with his boundary breaking that some staffers’ only job was making sure he didn’t get handsy.
Lasseter left Pixar in 2017, only to re-emerge in 2019 as the head of Skydance Animation. He gave a public speech about how his time away from the industry had allowed him to reflect on his bad behavior and that it had made him a better leader.
Whatever the case, the optics of hiring Lasseter two years after he walked away from an industry he all but founded in disgrace were questionable at best. And that could account for why Blush, along with sci-fi epic Foundation, became one of the longest-gestating projects at the company. Stills appeared quite some time ago and yet the Blush press screener dropped out of nowhere something like eight hours before the film debuted on Apple TV+. The company never announced a review embargo, either. It all smacks of, “Oh this? Yeah I guess this is out.”
Down by the Green River where Paradise lay
That’s a shame because Blush, while sentimental in the way the worst of Pixar can sometimes be, is obviously a heartfelt labor of love from a man trying to express his very real grief. Director Joe Mateo‘s wife Mary Ann, the mother of their two children, died of breast cancer in 2017.
Blush is quite obviously the work of a man trying to make his grief into something usable and productive for other grieving families. The film is cute at first, with the reluctant courtship of space man and space alien. And then, like Up before it, it becomes unspeakably sad in the blink of an eye.
It’s an open question whether children’s animation specifically is the right medium to discuss things like death when such films have been become texturally synonymous with bright and lovely things for kids. I don’t mean no one should take risks in the form. That would be ludicrous (especially considering the deep, deep bench of upsetting animation with huge fan bases).
However, having experienced the whiplash of “Aww, that’s nice” to “Oh, did he have sex with an alien? Yup … he had sex with that alien” to “Oh my god this is so sad,” I simply question whether enough work is being done to foreground the tonal changes now that this kind of thing is such an established form.
‘Serious’ animation tackles serious issues
Thanks to Pixar, it’s sort of expected that “serious” computer animation will swing for the fences in introducing its young audience to the horrors of adulthood. I watched your Lands Before Time and Brave Little Toasters when I was a kid, and I don’t know that they did much more than scare the hell out of my young self. I don’t feel like I was much more prepared for death and aging after having seen them. But maybe child psychologists finally proved that the cuter the movie, the easier it is to sell kids on the idea that dying is a natural part of the cycle of life.
And Blush is an unbelievably cute work of animation. Mateo (who has been in Disney animation since the ’90s; his latest work was as a story artist for Raya and the Last Dragon) and his animators did a great job building their Little Prince–inspired planet and designing the cute alien girls. I think it’s pretty funny that they gave their astro-man a little puberty mustache to prove he wasn’t a kid anymore. Otherwise, his suddenly coupling with an adorable space alien would be even weirder than it is.
As Skydance’s first animation project, Blush is a qualified success at best, though I think it’s probably a lock to get nominated for best animated short at the Oscars. This is exactly the kind of thing that wows Academy voters, but I’m not sure what kind of life it’s going to have beyond that.
Watch Blush on Apple TV+
Blush premiered on Apple TV+ on October 1.
Watch on: Apple TV+
Scout Tafoya is a film and TV critic, director and creator of the long-running video essay series The Unloved for RogerEbert.com. He has written for The Village Voice, Film Comment, The Los Angeles Review of Books and Nylon Magazine. He is the director of 25 feature films, and the author of more than 300 video essays, which can be found at Patreon.com/honorszombie.