It’s hard to think of the last time one thing, one cultural event that wasn’t something really terrible or sad, simultaneously brought Film Twitter together and tore it apart. (Just kidding, Brandon Nowalk named at least five things that had a similar effect.) I’ve gotten pretty good at either being completely apathetic/indifferent to some, if not most of these debates, or at least keeping my opinion to myself. But this one, concerning the latest Pixar short film, seemed too amusing to not joke about having an opinion in the first place. It managed to engender some very, very vehement feelings, mostly vitriolic. There are certainly a bunch of people who, and I saw this with love and respect for these people, were incredibly smarmy and self-righteous in their defense of this short, but having not yet seen it, I couldn’t properly weigh in on the great Film Twitter debate that was on Lava.
Finally seeing Lava also meant that I also finally got to see Inside Out, which required little debate to conclude that it was very good. But several things struck me about Lava: its photo-realism, its desire to evoke Hawaiian music, the rather unsightliness of its volcanic players, the self-satisfied cutesiness, its deep heteronormativity, and, in my opinion worse, its perpetuation of nuclear relationships.
Let’s talk about the positives, lest I be accused of being exactly what I am: a bitter, cynical, jaded singleton with back pain and enough poisonous wit to make Dorothy Parker smirk. (At parties, at least.) Lava, for the most part, is very pretty. It recalls not Finding Nemo, but test footage that was rendered in pre-production for that film (which is featured on the DVD). It is very pretty. That’s all I have to say, because this film cannot rest on pretty. Because, despite the deep waters that seem to house massive amounts of magma (hey, folks, it isn’t actually lava until it reaches the earth’s surface!), all of its aesthetic seems rather shallow and facile. There’s little in the way of interesting composition (save for the somewhat cleverly heat ignited heart in the sea’s floor), and even less so in playing with form. It is, like the short as a whole, seemingly designed for the lowest common denominator.
What I’ve always enjoyed about Pixar short films is that they’ve almost always been cognizant of the interplay between sight and sound, time and again proving that both animation and the short film were mediums and not genres. Lava is so desperately cutesy and reductive, the kind of thing that a fourth grader thinks is cute, but fails in execution. Now, to be fair, Pixar’s demographic certainly includes fourth graders, but, as is their reputation, their shorts and features have broader appeal, which is often manifested formally, in addition to thematically. Their cinematic influences also become clear through various shorts. Presto (2008) was heavily reminiscent of a kind of Looney Toons slapstick – never deny your main attraction their carrot – but with the brevity and flexibility of Buster Keaton. The Keaton-esque influences were also present in Geri’s Game (1997), in which an older man, with a bit of a benevolent vendetta, plays chess against, well, himself. It’s not high concept, but it’s clever enough to encompass a pleasant short, and actively plays on the audience’s expectations with the subversion of the typical short/reverse shot method of dialogue scenes. (Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers would essentially use the same methodology for the Gollum vs. Sméagol scene.) One Man Band had dueling musicians vie for a young girl’s coin, and composer Michael Giacchino’s deliberately crafted score is an amusing battle of wills. I don’t love Day & Night, but there’s an inventiveness there that’s worth noting (the marriage of 2D and 3D animation, folks!) So, Lava essentially fails visual and sonic inventiveness, but it is pretty.
The short film employs the use of a song to tell its story, and while the evocation of Hawaiian music is not in itself an issue, it is the laziness in the way it does. It very purposefully recalling Israel “IZ” Kamakawiwoʻole’s cover of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”, not just in its general tone, but in its chord structure (everything that is not the chorus is structured similarly to the bridge in “Rainbow”). I’m unsure if this is meant to be a point of nostalgia for people or not, but the lack of not originality per se, but effort. It’s evident in the fact that “lava” is its primary – only, actually – pun that runs throughout the film what feels like an unending number of times, and that is its sole joke. The visual gags don’t exist, the rest of the song is pretty poorly written, and the humor is entirely contingent on “lava” being a pun on “love”. (It also just occurred to me that the boy volcano looks like IZ.) I will admit, however, that the chorus is catchy.
And then the “problematic” stuff: Ironically, the short’s heteronormativity doesn’t bother me as much as I thought it might. It’s the status quo, and it’s hard to fight, and this short, outside of rendering the actual objects, seemed to be putting the least amount of effort in anyways. There’s a boy volcano and a girl volcano, who, for some reason, has dreads. I do not completely understand why these anthropomorphized volcanoes had to be gendered. As the boy volcano looks on and wallow about how single he is, I don’t remember the other couples being explicitly gendered, though I could be wrong. But they’re volcanoes. They don’t need to be gendered. If the end game of this short is to show, Look how happy this volcano is now that he’s found a significant other! is gender so crucial to understanding people’s ostensible need for love and validation? I think not, personally.
But it’s this perpetuation of a nuclear dynamic that bothers me more. This volcano manages to wallow on in self-pity – something, I assure you, I am very skilled in doing – for almost the entirety of the its running time. He is socialized, so to speak, into believing that happiness comes by way of having a significant other. While it’s not entirely unfair to suggest that, yes, having a significant other is very nice, it’s the fact that the film continually suggests at this idea that happiness is contingent on that which seems rather frustrating to me. He’s visibly miserable, and as he is about to almost die, there’s little in the way of any other people in his life providing him with comfort, joy, happiness, or validation.
I was kind of reminded of the episode of 30 Rock entitled “Anna Howard Shaw Day”, where Liz (Tina Fey) finds herself intentionally being anarchic with regards to Valentine’s Day, a holiday, she mentions, is used to reinforce gender roles. However, she has no one to bring to her oral surgery, prompting Frank to say that she’s in the same boat as the rest of the single people. “All we want is to know that there’s someone who cares about us,” he says meekly. There is, in that episode, a conscious poking fun of both sides: people so vehemently against the idea of Valentine’s Day, who tend to be self-righteous in their cause, and those firmly in favor of it, equally self-indulgent. Frank’s point seems to suggest a similarly relationship-oriented thesis, but the end of the episode, in which Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin) brings her home, proves the point: love and validation come from people that play many different roles in your life, not just romantic ones.
Lava, unfortunately, is too preoccupied with its self-satisfied schmaltz to bother thinking of that, or much else. It’s such a disappointment because it seems so inclined to have one goal and discard any other ideas out to sea – formally, thematically, etc. Instead, Instead of playing like a story of boy meets girl and the power of love to bring volcanoes (?) together, it feels more like it heavily implies that the escape from loneliness and misery is a relationship, instead of self-acceptance, friendship, or better puns.