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Lava: The Pixar Short of The Week

This week, “Lava” was the overwhelming favorite in our latest twitter short film poll.

I have to admit, I was more than a bit surprised that “Lava” won, and by such a large margin. I remember the short being distinctly unpopular when it first premiered in 2015, paired with Inside Out. There were lots of complaints about “Lava,” ranging from the story (or lack thereof) to the character designs. And while some of those negative responses are reasonable (to an extent), I think this short does have its merits. Maybe “Lava” isn’t technically or narratively groundbreaking, but it doesn’t have to be.

I saw Inside Out nine times in theaters, which means I also saw “Lava” nine times! And at almost every viewing, the reaction to Uku, the male volcano, opening his mouth to sing was derisive laughter. I couldn’t ever see what was so funny about it. What made me laugh wasn’t the short itself, but my mother’s wry observation at its conclusion: “Well, there’s someone for everybody.” And isn’t that just like Pixar, to not only anthropomorphize volcanoes, but make them yearn for romance and everlasting love? Sure, as someone in one of the above critical pieces noted, Pixar already did it before with umbrellas…but these are volcanoes! Massive ruptures in the earth’s crust that literally erupt fire and destroy everything in their path. But the volcanoes in “Lava” are gentle, with friendly faces and sweet singing voices.

Uku (Kuana Torres Kahele) is a lonely volcano in the middle of the sea who sings about finding his one true love.

“I wish that the earth, sea, and the sky up above-a
Will send me someone to lava.”

Thousands of years pass and he remains alone, literally eroded and sinking into the sea. One of the most brilliant moments of the short is the time lapse representing all these years.

via Giphy

And how quietly devastating is the sight of a volcano on the brink of extinction, never once experiencing the love that all the animals around him do? Turtles, dolphins, birds — all have a special someone, except for this craggy mountain of rock. He once bloomed in verdant greens, with bright sparks of red-orange lava, but all of that rich color and life disappear.

But not all hope is lost. Lele (Napua Greig) is an underwater volcano who believes Uku’s song is for her. She bursts forth to the surface while Uku descends into the sea. When she starts singing his song, Uku, reinvigorated by music and love, rises back up to join her, and they form an island called Ukulele.

“Lava” is considered by many to be Pixar’s weakest. Some people are a bit more extreme in their assessment, calling it the worst thing Pixar has ever made, offensive (!), worthless, total garbage. Dana Stevens over at Slate declared it an embarrassingly terrible horror show, but only after she spent four long winded paragraphs talking about other film releases in 2015. Truly bizarre! I might not agree with my nephew that “Lava” is Pixar’s greatest short, but I definitely trust his opinion more than anyone else’s.

concept art

Director James Ford Murphy was inspired by his love of Hawaii, where he honeymooned with his wife over 25 years ago. He also wrote the short’s eponymous song and first pitched it at Pixar by singing and playing it on his ukulele. The song’s inspiration came from Hawaiian singer Israel Kamakawiwo’ole’s beautifully haunting rendition of “Over the Rainbow,” which is very meaningful to Murphy. What he really wanted was to create something just like it in movie form.

There’s also the level of immaculate detail we usually expect from Pixar, particularly the inspiration from actual volcanic geology. Murphy also incorporated Lōʻihi, an underwater volcano, into the short. Lōʻihi formed the basis for “Lava,” as Murphy wondered if this volcano knew about Hawaii (the Big Island) and vice versa.

What I love most about the short’s backstory is that Lōʻihi came to represent Murphy’s sister, who married in her 40s.

“As my sister stood up on the altar, I thought about how happy she was and how long she’d waited for her very special day. There, at my sister’s wedding, I remembered Loihi and I had an epiphany… What if my sister was a volcano? And what if volcanoes spend their entire lives searching for love, like humans do?”

We got the answer in a sweet 7 minute musical.

Some fun facts:

  • Uku and Lele’s eyes were originally lava, but the result was creepy and they ended up looking too much like jack-o-lanterns.
  • The clouds around the two volcanoes were based on weather patterns and were also meant to resemble hula skirts and leis.
  • The voices of Uku and Lele, Kuana Torres Kahele and Napua Greig, found out they had both attended hula school together when they met in the recording studio.
  • Did you know the Pizza Planet Truck appears in the short? Look very closely at one of the constellations in the sky during the time lapse!

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