Lava, directed by James Ford Murphy, is a musical short that follows a volcanic island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean (apparently named Uku) in his longing for love. Narrated by song, we learn about Uku watching all the other creatures around him couple up and sings his wishes for a romance of his own. Alone, he begins to sink and lose his volcanism, never knowing that another volcano (Lele) is listening to him from beneath the sea and falling in love.
Pixar’s shorts often display the best of what the studio is doing, showing their developing skills in animation and the beauty of their storytelling. Lava does this in some respects but in a very different way than anything else I’ve seen from them. There is minimal motion on-screen – you’re not following characters running about to complete their story arcs – and the visuals are instead made up mostly of short snapshots that fade in and out as the story is told to you in song. It looks like postcards moving through a slide show. This is just such an interesting departure from the typical Pixar short and I can’t say I dislike it.
My favourite thing about Lava is the song and I’m sure other fans will agree. It’s pretty moving. Though backed only by a ukulele, the lyrics conjure images and feelings in your mind that are far stronger than anything that actually plays on-screen during the short. The song itself has everything that I usually value in a Pixar short: it’s simplicity makes it more emotive. I also love that this musical short is very different than your average Pixar film.
This is, however, a double-edged sword. While most Pixar shorts prioritise action and careful animation to tell the story, Lava works completely differently. Everything is told to you through the lyrics of the song and snapshot-style images that go with it. Nothing is really shown that the song doesn’t explain. You could easily close your eyes and just listen to the music to get the story. I can appreciate the experimentation with the traditional expectations of a Pixar short but I also feel a little… frustrated by it? It means that Lava, in a lot of ways, doesn’t feel like a Pixar film.
I also feel that Lava is one of those Pixar shorts that is terribly miss-matched with it’s feature film pair. Coming alongside 2014’s Inside Out, Lava could not be more different in style and them. Inside Out is a fun coming-of-age exploration about dealing with feelings that grow more complex with age in a very cartoon-ish style. Lava is a love story, dealing with quite mature feelings of loneliness and longing, done with almost photo-realistic animation. They don’t go together. I’ve heard of children going in to see the film and becoming distressed because they thought this was the film they were going to see and it was too much for them. Inside Out‘s target audience is fairly young while Lava is definitely more mature.
I love the song from Pixar’s Lava and can appreciate that it was a step in a new direction for the studios short films. Unfortunately I think the lack of action and more grown up themes were perhaps a step too far, especially when paired with the more fun and kid-friendly feature, Inside Out. While the snapshots and lyrics are beautiful, Lava is just a little bit of a let down as a Pixar short.