As I had the previous year, in early 2018 I saw at a theater a showing of all the Academy Award-nominated short films—five animated and five live action—from 2017. Lou is the one from Disney Pixar. Piper was their entry the previous year.
My experience of Piper colored my expectations for Lou. I thought Piper was very well done technically, that it was a pleasing, whimsical, smile-inducing little film that really didn’t have much substance to it. I liked it OK for what it was, but it didn’t blow me away by a long shot. In fact, because I was quite impressed with the other four entries, in spite of liking Piper I identified it as my fifth favorite out of five that year. Yet the people at the theater where I saw it reacted more positively to Piper than to any of the other four, and it ended up winning the Oscar.
So I figured Lou would be more of the same: A very well-done, very mainstream, pleasing, family friendly, cute little Disney Pixar film that was worth seeing but nothing special, and that everyone else would like more than me.
In fact, while none of the nominees for animated short films were complete duds this year, I thought on the whole they were a clear step down from the previous year, and whereas the Disney Pixar one had ranked fifth for me last year, it was probably the one I liked best this year.
Is that because Lou is substantially better than Piper, or because the competition was notably weaker this year? Probably some of each, but I did genuinely enjoy this film.
The film takes place in an elementary school playground during recess. The title character of the film is a bully, though more mischievous and inconsiderate than downright cruel or violent. But he’s a big kid who gets off on taking things from other kids.
There is a “Lost and Found” box alongside the school, filled with the various items that have been lost and abandoned by the children over time, including things Lou has taken from people and then tossed aside when he grew bored with them. In a surreal twist, the items come alive, forming themselves into a shapeshifting creature that decides to teach Lou a lesson.
First the creature tries to take Lou’s backpack to show him what it’s like to have something stolen from him, and they comically fight back and forth over it for a while. Then it realizes that a carrot approach might be better than a stick approach. Remembering that it already has something of Lou’s in its box (a beloved stuffed animal that one of Lou’s parents evidently took away from him as a punishment when he was much younger—and hurt him enough to turn him into a bully?), it offers it to Lou. But it wants something in return.
It tasks Lou with returning the other contents of the box to the rightful owners if he wants his own possession back. At first he does this in a resentful, perfunctory manner, thrusting the items back into the hands of the other kids with a frown, and then rushing back to the box in the hopes that he has done enough to get his own item back.
But gradually the duty grows on him, as he sees the joy in the children’s faces, and experiences their gratitude toward him. Soon he’s happily passing items out, realizing that as much as he derived pleasure from dominating and hurting his peers, making them happy is even more pleasurable.
In the end he gets his stuffed animal back, but of course more importantly he becomes a good kid who delights in getting along with others.
Really the story doesn’t even add up. I don’t mean the lost items coming alive and acting like a person—obviously that’s not supposed to be realistic and you have to suspend disbelief—but the fact that surely the kids are capable of walking over to that box and retrieving their own stuff, or barring that, whatever adult is in charge of such things would let the kids know what has been found and would find out what belongs to whom. Lou’s role in the process is completely superfluous.
But never mind that. This is a sweet little film with some moments of humor that carries a very positive message. I’ll admit it even got me a little choked up by the end. As I anticipated, it’s very well done and professional, and it’s the kind of thing I assume a mainstream audience would love. But what I didn’t anticipate is that I enjoyed it as much as or almost as much as I imagine that mainstream audience enjoying it. A clear thumbs up.
(By the way, I don’t think it’s ever actually stated that the kid’s name is “Lou.” The animation at one point shows the letters from Lost and fOUnd spelling “LOU,” so maybe the implication is that that’s the name of the creature from that box and not the kid, whose name is left unknown. Whatever.)