Pixar has a phenomenal track record for feature films. They’ve won Oscars. They’ve been showered with critical acclaim. They’ve had nearly unprecedented box office success. Seriously, the closest thing Pixar has to a flop is The Good Dinosaur, and even that made $123 million in the U.S. Their latest effort, Finding Dory, is poised to be yet another winner.
Of course, every new Pixar movie is preceded by a short, and the company has excelled in this realm, too. Many of their 5-minute films are every bit as rich and compelling as the ones that run ninety minutes, and that’s because good old-fashioned storytelling is the name of the game at Pixar. Piper will be unspooling — or whatever the appropriate terminology is in this age of digital projection — before Finding Dory, so we thought this would be a good time to look at the previous shorts. It’s hard to find a dud among them. But gems? There are plenty of those, as you’re about to see.
Here are the 13 Best Pixar Shorts Of All Time.
13. LUXO JR.
Luxo Jr. runs a brief two minutes, but contains a visual icon that will be familiar to anyone who’s ever seen a Pixar production. The company took its desk lamp mascot from this short. Actually, there are two desk lamps here, a big one and a smaller one. The small lamp attempts to play with a ball, only to deflate it.
The plot is minimal, which is okay since this was the company’s first effort. Luxo Jr. came at a time when computer animation was still in its earliest stages. In many respects, it is as much a tech demonstration as a story; then-new technologies such as shadow mapping were displayed here. Acclaim quickly followed. All the way back in 1986, Luxo Jr. became the first computer-animated film to receive an Oscar nomination (in the Best Animated Short Film category). Later, due to its groundbreaking nature, it was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry. Not a bad start for Pixar.
12. TIN TOY
Tin Toy, released in 1988, brought Pixar the first of its many Academy Award wins. This five-minute feature is both simple and appealing. An old one-man band wind-up toy (“Tinny”) repeatedly attempts to escape the clutches of a baby named Billy, who tends to be a little rough with his playthings. Hiding under the couch, our mechanical hero discovers a bunch of other toys also trying to avoid ending up in Billy’s hands. When the baby falls and begins crying, Tinny comes back out and allows himself to be played with. Billy cheers up, then goes on to play with the box Tinny came in.
Directed by Pixar head John Lasseter, Tin Toy is an early example of the winning company formula. The animation is inventive, while the storytelling has a relatable quality that makes it kind of heartwarming. Who among us didn’t destroy a few toys during our childhood years? This was by no means an easy film to make. Animating a lifelike child was a new challenge for the Pixar team – one that they pulled off skillfully. Tin Toy also attracted the attention of Disney, who went on to have a long, fruitful relationship with Pixar. In fact, Tin Toy served as an inspiration for Toy Story.
11. FOR THE BIRDS
A key ingredient to Pixar’s enduring appeal is simplicity. They make movies about things we all recognize or have familiarity with: toys, bugs, fish, emotions, etc. Their short For the Birds focuses on – you guessed it — birds. Released with Monsters, Inc. in 2001, the Oscar-winning movie finds a tiny bird landing on a telephone wire, where it is soon joined by other birds of varying temperament. A rather large, ungainly-looking bird also hops on the wire. Conflict arises between them, leading to a laugh-getting punchline in which the wire sags way down, then snaps up, leaving the big bird comfortably on the ground while flinging all the others skyward.
Directed by Ralph Eggleston, For the Birds is nothing more than a comic lark. It’s a darn funny one, though. In just three-and-a-half minutes, it perfectly sets up and pays off a solid joke. The short shows how computer animation can be used to create bits of physical comedy that couldn’t be achieved anywhere near as effectively with humans (or, for that matter, real birds).
10. GERI’S GAME
Attached to A Bug’s Life in 1997, Jan Pinkava’s Geri’s Game won the Best Animated Short Film Oscar the following year. Its central character is an elderly man named Geri who plays a game of chess against himself in a park. Moving from one side of the board to the other, he seems to morph into two separate players. As the game grows increasingly competitive, one of the Geris fakes a heart attack to distract the other from an attempt to cheat. It works, and the losing Geri surrenders his fake teeth as a reward.
Geri’s Game was the first Pixar film to have a human being as its main character. The company made it, in part, to continue challenging itself in pushing the animation envelope. They attempted to create more realistic skin, hair, and clothing fabric with the movie, too. Those elements work, but there’s also an important touch of Pixar pathos here. One can’t help but feel for this poor man, who has no one to play chess with. Incidentally, Geri makes a cameo appearance in Toy Story 2 as the toy repairman who reattaches Woody’s arm.
9. SMALL FRY
Pixar can seemingly do no wrong with the Toy Story franchise. All three feature films in the trilogy are excellent (a real rarity) and the short films spun off from it continued to find fresh scenarios for the characters. That’s certainly true of Small Fry, which went out with prints of The Muppets in 2011.
Small Fry deals with a very particular kind of toy: the disposable ones children get in Happy Meals. Buzz Lightyear (once again voiced by Tim Allen) gets stuck in a fast food restaurant, where he discovers a support group for rejected kids’ meal toys being held in a storage room. Meanwhile, a mini version of Buzz escapes from the restaurant and goes back to the house, where it unsuccessfully tries to convince everyone that he’s the real deal. Small Fry marks a witty return from the beloved Toy Story characters, and it also continues the series’ theme of humorously looking at the shelf life of children’s playthings.
Pixar humor spans a wide variety of styles. Some of its best comedy comes when their work spoofs cultural oddities. They did this quite well with Lifted, which played theatrically with Ratatouille. In this sci-fi short, an alien named Stu is assigned to abduct a sleeping farmer. His nerves are compounded by a no-nonsense, ever-watching instructor and a control panel with a seemingly endless array of identical-looking switches. Each of his attempts results in the snoozing farmer hitting a wall, the floor, or the ceiling, somehow never waking. The film ends with Stu accidentally crushing the farmer’s house. All that’s left is the farmer slumbering peacefully in bed.
Lifted marked the directorial debut of Gary Rydstrom, an award-winning sound designer whose work includes Terminator 2, Saving Private Ryan, and Jurassic Park. What makes it so special is that it takes something we’re all familiar with – people who claim to have been abducted by aliens – and presents it from a viewpoint we never considered. The slapstick placed over this conceit makes for hilarity. Lifted is funny both on the surface and under it, once again demonstrating Pixar’s ability to work on multiple comic levels simultaneously.
7. JACK-JACK ATTACK
The Incredibles is widely considered to be one of Pixar’s best pictures. For the DVD release, they included Jack-Jack Attack, a short centered around a character who only gets a small bit of screen time in the feature, baby Jack-Jack. A hapless babysitter is left in charge of the infant, who spends the evening testing out his superpowers. He transports through walls, shoots lasers out of his eyes, and repeatedly bursts into flames. The poor teen girl watching him frantically attempts to rein Jack-Jack in.
Basing a short on a character who was largely on the periphery was an inspired idea. It shows where Jack-Jack was and what he was doing while the Incredibles were out fighting Syndrome and saving the world. Jack-Jack Attack is also hysterical, playing off the difficulty many parents and caretakers have when trying to control young children, who can get into all kinds of trouble very quickly.
6. DAY & NIGHT
Day & Night is quite possibly the most conceptually out-there short Pixar has made to date. Two characters appear against a black background. One is Day, the other Night. Their bodies are composed of opposing images. As the two feud, the images change, showing the same thing from different points of view. For instance, Night shows a deserted beach at dusk with garbage left behind, while Day reflects a sunbather catching some afternoon rays. Eventually, their distrust turns to admiration, as each sees the unique, wondrous qualities of the other. (In a competition to show color, Day reveals a rainbow, Night displays fireworks.) The characters realize that they compliment one another quite well and become friends. The short concludes with a twist on the concept of “getting day and night mixed up.”
Directed by Teddy Newton and shown before Toy Story 3, Day & Night is one of the more challenging Pixar works, of any length. Some of it doubtlessly goes over the heads of children, but most adults will recognize genius in the way the short plays with visual imagery. Some may feel it’s too weird. Even so, Day & Night is pure experimentation. When you get right down to it, isn’t that what short films are for anyway?
5. LA LUNA
La Luna doesn’t make a whole lot of sense if you only take it at face value, but it contains a lyrical beauty and childlike sense of wonder that makes it irresistible. A young boy is on a small boat with his father and grandfather. They extend a very long ladder and climb up to the moon, where they begin sweeping fallen stars off the surface. A gigantic star comes crashing down, impeding their efforts. The boy climbs on top and smashes it with a hammer. The pieces are then swept to the side. When their work is done, the men climb back down to the boat, leaving a beautiful crescent moon behind.
The point of La Luna — which played before Brave — is to explore the majesty of the moon and stars, which is especially palpable when you’re a kid. It is a simple story, yet one that mixes breathtakingly gorgeous animation with a profound appreciation for the beauty of the cosmos. This is Pixar at its most poetic.
In Doug Sweetland’s Presto (paired with Wall-E in 2008), a magician wants to pull a rabbit out of a hat. The rabbit, peeved at not being fed a carrot prior to the show, refuses to cooperate. He ends up repeatedly sabotaging the performance, but in such a spectacularly bizarre manner that the audience thinks it’s seeing a mind-blowing new trick.
Presto proves that animation can effectively be used to portray farce, one of the most difficult types of comedy to pull off. The frenzied pace and exaggerated physical humor required by farce are done to perfection here, with the movie’s energy growing wilder the longer it goes on. The climax — which finds a dazed, bewildered, and pants-less magician saved from certain doom by his bunny — is absolutely brilliant. Presto contains a lot of visual invention that allows it to hold up to repeated viewings. It’s the kind of short you can always find new things in.
3. PARTLY CLOUDY
In Partly Cloudy, a bunch of puffy white clouds produce cute little babies of all species, which are then delivered to earth by a brigade of storks. A dark storm cloud, meanwhile, finds itself able to create only dangerous creatures like crocodiles and porcupines — creatures that repeatedly injure the stork assigned to transport them. Unable to muster up anything adorable and cuddly, the cloud becomes depressed and starts crying (or, more accurately, raining). Eventually, the stork shows a little acceptance, showing the cloud that all creations, including the electric eel it has just been handed for delivery, have worth.
Like many Pixar shorts, Partly Cloudy (attached to Up) is wordless. That allows the viewer to focus on the visuals, which are nothing short of astonishing. Animating clouds marked another innovative step forward for the company, while once again demonstrating their skill at basing tales around everyday objects. In a little over five minutes, the film tells a complete story that runs a gamut of emotions, making you laugh, then leaving you with a lump in your throat at the end.
2. ONE MAN BAND
There’s a tiny bit of Tin Toy DNA to be found in One Man Band, which served as the pre-Cars short in 2005. It’s the story of two Italian street performers competing for the coin of a little girl. They use increasingly desperate tactics in an effort to out-do each other. The girl, meanwhile, goes back and forth, depending on who is giving the more elaborate or sophisticated performance from second to second. In the end, the commotion causes her to drop the coin down a drain. She angrily takes a violin from one of the musicians, plays a beautiful solo, and receives a huge bag of coins from an unseen pedestrian. The story ends with her offering coins to the two performers — and then throwing those coins into a nearby fountain.
One Man Band is a very musical short. It’s ingenious how the film abruptly switches back and forth between the two performers’ styles, and other times melds them together. The final twist, with the girl revealing an unexpected musical proficiency, provides a witty quirk that drives home the short’s central theme, which is that substance is always more valuable than style.
1. SANJAY’S SUPER TEAM
Directed by Sanjay Patel and inspired by his own childhood, this seven minute-long gem originally played in front of 2015’s The Good Dinosaur. A young Hindu boy named Sanjay watches his favorite superhero cartoon and plays with a toy. This annoys his father, who is meditating on the opposite side of the room. Frustrated by the noise, his dad turns off the TV, confiscates the toy, and insists that the boy pray. A mishap causes Sanjay to inadvertently extinguish an oil lamp used in the prayer ritual. Suddenly, he finds himself transported to a temple where he becomes a superhero in his own right, joining with three Hindu gods to defeat a multi-headed creature intent on destruction. The short ends with him returned to the real world, where his father allows him to resume watching his show. They find some common ground when Dad sees that Sanjay has been incorporating elements of their religion into the superhero drawings he’s been working on.
As a child, Patel was obsessed with superheroes and cartoons. He also rebelled against the meditation and prayer rituals that Hinduism required him to perform daily. This created within him a conflict, as he felt the pull of both his religion and his personal, more secular interests. That personal touch makes Sanjay’s Super Team unique not only among Pixar films, but among animated fare in general. It’s a more culturally specific film, but one that still touches on universal ideas related to religion, family, and fantasy. Everything that makes Pixar great is accounted for here: appealing humor, inventive animation, and a core of humanity.
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