Pixar Short Films: Looking Back at Twenty-Seven Years of Little Gems

By  · Published on June 18th, 2013

This week’s opening of Pixar’s latest film, Monsters University, a sequel starring fan favorites Mike Wazowski and James P. “Sulley” Sullivan, also signals the debut of another perennial Pixar favorite – the accompanying short film. Since the animation house’s second theatrical release, Toy Story 2, every Pixar feature film has kicked off with an all-new short. Some of them have been instant classics (like For the Birds, Day & Night, and my personal favorite, Presto) and some of them have fallen somewhat flat (I forgot about Geri’s Game, Boundin’, and Lifted almost immediately after watching them). Three of them even won the Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film (and of the twelve already released, ten of them were nominated for the award).

The short attached to Monsters University, Saschka Unseld’s The Blue Umbrella, is a different kind of short film for Pixar. Its use of photorealistic CGI is a departure from the more traditional animation styles that Pixar’s shorts have previously utilized, and one that teeters on the edge of the so-called Uncanny Valley. Putting it another way – realizing the entire thing is computer-animated is both obvious (it does focus on the love story between anthropomorphized umbrellas) and unsettling (it sometimes looks too “real” to be fake, though we’re not talking Mars Needs Moms levels of weirdness). It does, however, still have that Pixar charm and emotion (really, it focuses on the love story between anthropomorphized umbrellas), though the bulk of its creativity is focused on ancillary characters (like street signs, a mailbox, and drains) that make said anthromprophzed umbrellas seem uninspired.

The release of a new Pixar short seems as good a time as any to reflect on some of the company’s hits and misses when it comes to the tiny film genre, so here’s to looking back at twenty-seven years and thirteen game-changing shorts.

Luxo, Jr. (1986, released in 1999 in front of Toy Story 2)

Directed, written, and co-written by Pixar’s Chief Creative Officer, John Lasseter, is considered the first true Pixar short. It was also a breakthrough in computer animation, one that not only showed what was possible within the medium by the Pixar crew, but one that helped open up other animators to said possibilities. Oh, also? It introduced us to both Luxo, Jr. and the Pixar ball.

Tin Toy (1988, released with Toy Story’s home video release in 1996)

Another short directed and written by Lasseter, Tin Toy not only helped bolster the attention paid to Pixar’s propiertary computer animating software, PhotoRealistic RenderMan, it also inspired Toy Story itself. The Library of Congress selected the short for preservation in the United States National Film Registry back in 2003.

Knick Knack (1989, released in 2003 in front of Finding Nemo)

Another Lasseter joint, and one of the most purely funny and slapstick shorts Pixar has ever created. Ever wonder about the interior lives of snow globes and other holiday souvenirs? Here you go. Knick Knack was, however, notably not nominated for an Oscar, a particular sting after Luxo Jr. was nominated for the Best Animated Short Film Award and Tin Toy won its own years later.

Geri’s Game (1997, released in 1998 in front of A Bug’s Life)

Ratatouille creator and co-director Jan Pinkava cut his teeth on this one, the first Pixar production to focus on wholly human characters. And also chess. Which is probably why I don’t remember this one at all. No matter, it won the Oscar in 1997.

For the Birds (2000, released in 2001 in front of Monsters, Inc.)

Yet another Oscar winner, Ralph Eggleston’s For the Birds is still one of the funniest Pixar shorts around, made all the better with music by the incomparable Riders in the Sky.

Boundin’ (2003, released in 2004 in front of The Incredibles)

Bud Luckey’s short is very much his short, as he wrote it, co-directed it, narrated it, voiced all the characters, and composed the music. It’s still about a semi-nude sheep, but what can you do, it does come with a charming message about pride, being yourself, and the power of friendship.

One Man Band (2005, released in 2006 in front of Cars)

Still gives me nightmares, thanks to an aversion to both the art of pantomime and street shows in their many forms. Co-directed by Mark Andrews, who would eventually (and memorably) take over directing of Brave from Brenda Chapman, the film was also nominated for an Oscar.

Lifted (2006, released in 2007 in front of Ratatouille)

Probably the most amusing short film ever made about alien abduction and wanton destruction. Probably.

Presto (2008, released that same year in front of Wall-E)

Unquestionably my favorite Pixar short, thanks to the fact that it features a magical bunny rabbit, some seriously funny hijinks, and a well-deserved carrot. Playing in front of Wall-E only adds to the adorableness of Doug Sweetland’s short, ensuring a double dose of charm the likes of which the world has never seen.

Partly Cloudy (2009, released that same year in front of Up)

A nice addendum to Up, Peter Sohn’s Partly Cloudy also spent plenty of time in the sky and probably made a lot of children wonder about their birthing origins.

Day & Night (2010, released that same year in front of Toy Story 3)

A combination of 2D and 3D animation that also utilized anthropomorphic blobs, Teddy Newton’s Day & Night reaffirmed that Pixar could push its own boundaries to charming effect. This is what all Pixar shorts should aspire to, at least when it comes to technical innovation.

La Luna (2011, released in 2012 in front of Brave)

Another short that strayed from the traditionally known and accepted Pixar style, thanks to a very different animated look and feel. Emotionally, it’s still charming and sweet, and La Luna continued to push the Pixar boundaries.

The Blue Umbrella (2013, released that same year in front of Monsters University)

You’ll just have to check out this one in a theater near you, when it arrives this Friday.

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Two additional shorts are considered “theatrical” Pixar shorts – 1984’s The Adventures of Andre and Wally B. and 1987’s Red’s Dream – but as neither was attached to a Pixar feature film either theatrically or in home video release, we’ve omitted them here. Pixar has also made a number of shorts just for inclusion on home video releases, short series, and even a television special, but again, they’re not part of this bunch of theatrically-released shorts. Forgive us? Tell us your favorite in the comments?

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