I’ve been doing a lot of writing-based activities over the last couple of months, from finishing off my film adaptation and starting the television series to completing a collaborative novel with ten people in five days, and I’ll admit that this has taken a lot of my attention. With other things pulling me away from this blog, it takes something truly interesting to draw my attention. Enter the adorable Pixar short, Lou, by Dave Mullins.
Lou follows a creature (named, rather unsurprisingly, Lou) made up of an assortment of unclaimed items from a school Lost and Found box but, while the story opens with him collecting lost things from around the playground and placing them somewhere that the owner will find them the next day, it isn’t really about him. In fact, the story is about a school bully, JJ, who steals toys from other children. When first seeing JJ’s behaviour, Lou tries to steal the toys back to put them in the Lost and Found box but JJ catches him and, recovering quickly for someone who has just seen an apparently sentient jumper/baseball/tennis racket creature, a chase ensues. Lou catches a glimpse of JJ’s initials on his underwear and realises that he is the owner of a teddy in the Lost and Found box. Lou reveals the teddy but won’t give it back to JJ until he returns the things he has stolen and finds the owners of items in the box. As time goes on, JJ’s begrudging search for owners turns into a true willingness to help and he slowly empties the box until only the teddy remains. JJ realises that he has handed out all the parts of Lou to his classmates and yet he isn’t alone anymore as he has built friendships through his willingness to help.
I find Lou to be one of Pixar’s most interesting short films because of the two focal characters, Lou and JJ. While Pixar’s shorts often contain quite cute characters that are easy to build up an attachment to, I’m not sure I would describe either of these characters as purely cute. Yes, Lou is rather adorable in a mismatched way, but he’s also pretty intimidating. He changes form at various points to be taller, more threatening, and is properly angry when facing off against JJ. There’s no gentle teaching moments from Lou. Instead he holds a teddy hostage until he gets what he wants. He is both a ‘good’ character, in that he wants to return the lost belongings to their rightful owner, and a level of antagonism from him against JJ. He’s not black and white.
JJ has a similar duality but it takes a while for this to be revealed. He is a bully – there’s no denying that – and the way he conducts himself around the other children is naturally threatening. And you have to second-guess any child that takes on a shape-shifting jumper! But then he cares so much about that teddy and you learn that he was once bullied himself. This builds up your sympathy for JJ and gives the film a strong pay off when you finally see him playing with other children rather than angrily stomping about on his own.
One of the biggest things within Lou that sets it apart from other Pixar short films is the ending. I can’t think of another Pixar short where the ending is quite so bittersweet. JJ’s development comes with the loss of Lou and it’s pretty heart-wrenching when he looks into the box for the final time and sees bits of Lou all around the playground. Wow, that sentence felt oddly macabre to write… Anyway, you reach the end and feel joy for both characters – JJ has had a redemption arc and Lou has been found – but there is also this sense of loss because Lou, as he was introduced to you, no longer exists. Pixar has never been afraid to face this sort of bittersweet ending in its main films, but I honestly can’t think of a short where it happens, and this makes Lou really interesting to examine.
Like all my favourite Pixar shorts, Lou has no dialogue and so all the storytelling comes visually. And, as you would expect from an animation studio of Pixar’s calibre, those visuals are great. While I wouldn’t say it’s quite as ground-breaking as the likes of Piper, the animation is clean and engaging. It’s one of their more cartoon-y efforts, which works well as it allows them to make their sentient jumper more emotive, and the brightness that comes with this helps those more heartbreaking scenes from feeling too heavy. It is attached to Cars 3 but, while the Cars franchise is fairly cartoon-y itself, Lou is one of those shorts that doesn’t quite feel like it goes with its main film. Everything about it screams Toy Story or maybe even Monsters Inc. As part of Pixar’s overall repertoire, however, it works well to provide a stronger connection between the moods their main films like to play with and the shorts.
I’d been trying to decide which Pixar short I should review next, as they are something I’m passionate about and also quick to review, but hadn’t found one that grabbed my attention until I finally spotted Lou. It has everything I love best in a Pixar short: strong narrative without unnecessary dialogue, good animation, and a compelling story.