It’s an animation about a ball of yarn starting a brand-new office job. A very excited, good-natured ball of yarn, full of puns about knitting and wool. If it sounds like the plot for a Disney Pixar short, that is because it is.
It’s an animation about a male dominated workplace, sexism and being an outsider. A stereo-typically feminine women learns that to survive she must adopt masculine traits, tell dirty jokes, become aggressive in her business tactics, and swear. If it doesn’t sound like a Disney Pixar short, don’t worry, I was confused too.
As I watched the short, something that YouTube had suggested I might enjoy, I found myself repeatedly checking that it was, in fact, Pixar made. Not just some other animator’s work passed off as Pixar in an attempt to get more views. But yes, there was Pixar and their logo, there was the tick verifying it to be the company’s actual account.
It wasn’t that it was poorly animated, or that the animation style was completely unrecognisable. It was definitely Pixar, it was just so very adult.
The animation is simply named Purl, after its lead character, and is the first of six SparkShorts to be released by the animation studios. The SparkShorts are a Pixar’s Artist Project and are described by Kristen Lester, writer and director of Purl, as ‘indie filmmaking inside of Pixar.’ Six filmmakers were given a small budget and the opportunity to make and create their own unique stories.
President of the Pixar Animation Studios, Jim Morris said: “The SparkShorts program is designed to discover new storytellers, explore new storytelling techniques, and experiment with new production workflows. These films are unlike anything we’ve ever done at Pixar, providing an opportunity to unlock the potential of individual artists and their inventive filmmaking approaches on a smaller scale than our normal fare.”
Purl is the first of these shorts to be released and was first shared on YouTube on the 4th of February 2019. It landed with a flash and made a rather bold statement. This is not the Pixar you show to your five-year-old, definitely unlike anything I have ever seen from Pixar.
On the nose, is perhaps the best way to describe this short film. There are no doubts that the film is making a comment about women in a male dominated workplace. From the name of the fictional company, ‘B.R.O. Industries,’ to the sheer number of men in suits it is clear what we are expected to take away from this.
Throw in the sexist jokes about leaving the knitting at your grandma’s, and heavy masculine stereotypes, sport references, chicken wings, and happy hour obsession. It becomes clear that there is a large cultural divide between Purl and the other employees that means she must cross to be accepted.
It isn’t this that makes it less appropriate for young watchers, Pixar never shies away from dealing with complex issues. Indeed, as a company they have a stronger understanding of children’s intelligence than most other child-centric studios. It is the adult humour that would likely lend it a Parental Guidance rating, if constrained by such boundaries.
There are phallic jokes: “What’s the difference between a BMW and a porcupine? With the porcupine the pricks are on the outside!” and sexual jokes, “So then he says, I know this suit is expensive baby but at my appointment, it’s 100% off.” We are used to hearing innuendo in children’s media but anything this overt is unusual, and bares similarity to DreamWorks’ 2003 adaptation of The Cat in the Hat. Perhaps the most irreverent and dirty comedy ever made for children.
Purl’s clincher moment comes when she jumps on a desk screaming that the finance department can, “Kiss her ass!”
This sharpness softens however, upon the arrival of another ball of yarn, who Purl then introduces properly to the rest of the work force.
The story is personal to creator Kristen Lester. In a Meet the Filmmakers Behind Purl video she said, “My first job I was like, the only woman in the room. So, in order to do the thing I loved I sort of became one of the guys. And then I came to Pixar and I started to work on films with women for the first time, and that made me realise how much of the female aspect of myself I had sort of buried and left behind.” She also took inspiration from the 80’s workplace dramas, Working Girls (1986) and 9 to 5 (1980.)
The end of the film sees the adult humour replaced with yarn puns that have become acceptable in a colourful, welcoming, work place. There are still men in suits, but there are men in coloured shirts too, there is racial diversity amongst the men now, and many yarn balls, or women.
It’s uplifting, and thoughtful, just like everything Pixar does. But just a little more adult.