Every Pixar Short Film, Ranked
Every new film from Pixar Animation Studios arrives with a certain set of expectations. Audiences can safely presume that a new Pixar film — whether it’s a sequel or an original — is going to have plenty of action and comedy. And it’s equally safe to assume that the films will make you cry your eyes out. But it’s also correct to expect something before Pixar’s new features: a short film.
This practice didn’t start with Toy Story but soon became a hallmark of the studio’s distribution strategy. So with Toy Story 4 arriving in theaters this month, let’s rank Pixar’s short films. (NOTE: The following ranking of 20 shorts does not include those shorts directly related to one of Pixar’s features. Sorry “Mater’s Tall Tales.”)
20. “The Adventures of André & Wally B.”
You have to start somewhere. “The Adventures of André & Wally B.” is the literal starting point for Pixar’s entire depth and breadth of filmmaking; it’s their first-ever short, premiering in 1984. Because the short premiered so long ago, and computer technology has come extremely far over more than three decades, it’s unsurprising that it looks extremely old-fashioned. Even though “André & Wally B.” is an unquestionably important part of Pixar’s history, and you can only fault a film so much for the limitations of its technology, that doesn’t help the fact that this is more of a technological demo than even a slight story. “The Adventures of André & Wally B.” proved that computer animation was possible in being its own medium. But the medium had a long way to go after this.
19. “The Blue Umbrella”
Those of you who despise “Lava” may be surprised to see another recent short lower on this list. “The Blue Umbrella” is, however, just a truly uncomfortable short to watch. It’s the rarest of rare cases for Pixar, where photorealistic animation caused the studio to slip into the infamous uncanny valley. “The Blue Umbrella,” a silent 2013 short in which a blue and a red umbrella fall in love (because of course they do), looks unnerving because of how frequently it appears that only the faces of the umbrellas themselves are animated, where the rest of it may have been filmed in live-action. As an experiment, it’s fascinating. As a short, it’s off-putting.
18. “Tin Toy”
In an alternate universe, the film we know as Toy Story would have been a half-hour TV special that spun off from “Tin Toy.” In this 1988 short, the eponymous toy drummer runs afoul of a baby in the house where it resides, before comforting the temperamental baby after he has a nasty fall. The premise of the short is funny enough — the other toys in the house have wisely learned to steer clear of baby Billy, with shades of the toys in Sid’s house in Toy Story — but there’s just one problem: the computer animation on baby Billy is pretty atrocious. Animating humans by computer has always been a challenge, and the baby here is a great example of how far tech has progressed since the late 1980s. That’s enough to put this low on the list.
17. “Red’s Dream”
In some ways, “Red’s Dream” is a singular piece of animation for Pixar. It’s a truly unique example of the studio wallowing in pathos without offering a happy ending. Plenty of their shorts and films make audiences feel bad for the characters on screen, but since they’re a Disney entity now, those characters end up happy one way or the other. Not so for the eponymous bicycle Red in “Red’s Dream.” It dreams that it’s part of a circus act with a clown named Lumpy (for good reason, because the computer tech still made humans look ... well, you know), eventually taking center stage to applause. Until the dream ends and Red goes back to being a lonely bicycle. This short takes a chance, which is admirable, even if it doesn’t pay off.
Ah yes, the short that united the world in distaste and loathing. “Lava” is a very well-animated short in which one large volcano falls in love with another volcano, all scored to a tropical ballad in the vein of the famous “Over the Rainbow” cover. For some people, this short is charming and sweet and emotional in all the right ways. For the rest of us, “Lava” is such an overload of saccharine that you might contract diabetes just by watching it. In some ways, “Lava” is the pinnacle of Pixar’s overreliance on making audience members sad; such emotion can work in big doses, but you have to earn it. This short does not earn it.
15. “Knick Knack”
A year after “Tin Toy,” the short “Knick Knack” proved that it was still challenging to animate characters who had a vaguely human-like design. Take the lead character of this short, a snowman in a snow globe who gets into some fairly wacky hijinks and scrapes. The snowman isn’t quite human, but the animation of the character’s body and head is almost as lumpy as was the case for the baby in Tin Toy. The setup of the short, in which the snowman lusts after a pretty blonde girl in a bikini in another knick-knack, is a bit more anarchic than you might expect from Pixar. It’d be funnier if the animation lined up with the sly premise.
Personal preference being what it is, I cannot help but acknowledge that I find “Boundin’” to be a very annoying short. Directed and narrated by longtime animator Bud Luckey (who appeared in films like Toy Story 3 and The Incredibles), “Boundin’” is about a jackalope who teaches a sheep to get up again after having fallen down. It’s a nice enough lesson, and the animation is predictably detailed and impressive. But the nursery-rhyme-styled narration and Luckey’s deadpan song are things that you’re either entirely on board with or you’re not. And if you’re not, and you’re ranking these shorts, this one will not make the top 10.
How well do you remember “Lou”? This short is by no means bad — at this point, we’re entering the tier of Pixar shorts that are at least moderately enjoyable in the moment, as opposed to anything that’s outright bad. But “Lou,” which preceded the release of the unsuccessful Cars 3, also approaches just being forgettable. The eponymous character isn’t really one character at all, as much as an amalgam of toys and clothes in a lost-and-found box at a school playground. Lou ends up going head-to-head with a school bully, culminating in the bully being accepted after he gives back toys, and Lou ... no longer existing. It’s a very strange short, if nothing else.
12. “For the Birds”
“For the Birds��� is a case where not much happens, in part because Pixar was just trying out the idea of placing its short films in front of features. This was the second such short, placed in front of Monsters, Inc. in 2001. The premise of the short is pretty straightforward — a series of small birds on a telephone wire try to gang up on a very large bird who wants to have the wire to itself, and then, wouldn’t you know it, wackiness ensues. Director Ralph Eggleston is able to figure out a few different novel ways in which to unleash sight gags throughout the short. “For the Birds” is funny enough, but its title hints at its overall slightness and tossed-off nature.
11. “Geri’s Game”
Played in front of A Bug’s Life, “Geri’s Game” is all about a chess match between two old men. Well, it’s more accurate to say that it’s just one old man playing at two different personality types, with his own set of false teeth as the prize for the victor. “Geri’s Game” is a silly, lighthearted short that exists primarily as proof that Pixar had begun to crack the nut of animating human characters. Geri doesn’t look photo-real, to be sure, but the animation of the elderly man looks much more accurate to a human figure than previous characters did. Geri looked so good that he appears (kind of) in Toy Story 2, as a grouchy toy cleaner. This Oscar winner isn’t Pixar’s best, but proved how far the studio had come in just 15 years.
10. “Luxo, Jr.”
One of the most recognizable figures in Pixar history got its start in the 80s-era short “Luxo, Jr.” This short, like “The Adventures of André & Wally B.,” was very much a proof of concept: the premise of the short is that there’s a parent lamp and a kid lamp, and the kid lamp wants to bounce on a ball before it breaks. Really, the short is a sample of how computer technology can animate and approximate real, inanimate objects. But 30-plus years later, “Luxo Jr.” is known for the eponymous character, seen in the Pixar Animation Studios logo in front of every one of their features. Such a humble beginning for such a legitimate icon.
Some of Pixar’s shorts are showcases for animators’ wit and storytelling ingenuity. Some of their shorts are demonstrating exactly how cutting-edge the technology can get. “Piper,” which played in front of Finding Dory in 2016, was an example of the latter. The setup is cute enough, as we watch a tiny bird try to find food on the beach as a fierce tide keeps rolling in. But what’s awe-inspiring about “Piper” is its legitimate photorealism, which never slips into the uncanny valley. Watching as a group of birds forage for food as they’re drowned by the surf is incredible, because “Piper” manages to feel like it could be real without being unpleasant or uncomfortable. Technologically, this may be the studio’s most refined short to date.
8. “La Luna”
There’s something very fable-like about “La Luna,” a short that could just as easily have been a picture book for little kids. In it, a little boy and his father and grandfather go about their work of sweeping up stars. As seen through the eyes of the little-boy protagonist, “La Luna” is not one of the deepest or funniest Pixar shorts, but its tone is quite sweet and charming. If anything, “La Luna” began a period of more sentimental shorts from Pixar that’s only dimmed slightly over time. At least unlike a few of the subsequent shorts, “La Luna” never feels overly, sickly sweet. While some of those other shorts don’t earn their pathos, this one does.
Like another entry later on in the list, “Bao” was a long-overdue case of representation of non-White culture from Pixar. Last year’s Oscar winner for Best Animated Short, “Bao” is all about the relationship between a Chinese-Canadian woman and the dumpling she makes that comes to life. She’s soon treating the bao as her own son, and getting pretty heated up when the bao gets older and brings home a human girlfriend. Ridiculous though that may sound, it gets wilder when the woman does the only thing she can to protect her “son”: she eats it. Of course, the bao is a representation of her human, adult son who’s moving out with his real girlfriend. “Bao” is clearly a very personal short from director Domee Shi, and that intimate connection is what makes this short so special, as unexpected and weird as it may be.
6. “Day & Night”
The title of this short hints at its core conflict: between two personified versions of daytime and nighttime. Teddy Newton, who wrote and directed the short, has a lot of fun playing with our perceptions of what happens during these polar opposites and how they can be seen as warring with each other if they’re given faces and the ability to run around. As in “Knick Knack,” the lead characters end up being attracted to a pretty lady, as Night wants to spend more time in the day, and vice versa. But here, mixed with the blend of traditional and computer animation (the outlines of Day and Night are hand-drawn), there’s an unexpected real-world commentary at the end courtesy of an old radio broadcast. “Day & Night” is one of the more pleasantly surprising shorts Pixar has made, hinting at complexities not often seen in such brief runtimes.
5. “Partly Cloudy”
If storks are responsible for bringing babies of all kinds to their parents, where do those babies actually come from? In “Partly Cloudy,” the answer is the clouds. The short, directed by Peter Sohn, focuses on one specific, beleaguered stork and the cloud it works with. Every other cloud gives its storks cute babies, from puppies to human infants. This stork gets everything from a baby porcupine to a baby ram, with the results being quite painful and outrageous. Eventually, the cloud and stork come to a compromise involving a football helmet and protective pads, but the comedy up to that point manages to thread the needle between being hilarious and sentimental.
4. “One Man Band”
Since most of Pixar’s non-movie-related shorts don’t involve dialogue, or sung-through or narrated dialogue, it stands to reason that music would have to do much of the heavy lifting. Such is the case with “One Man Band,” in which two street buskers attempt to get a little girl to give one of them a shiny gold coin. Of course, their outlandish efforts leave them both penniless and the little girl outplaying them on their respective instruments. “One Man Band” is not the flashiest of Pixar’s shorts, but it represents one of the key trends in their best work: it’s very funny and clever, able to achieve a big laugh with sight gags as opposed to anything more complicated.
The hook for “Lifted” is ridiculous enough that it’s almost surprising the studio’s never turned it into a feature. What if student drivers weren’t just limited to mankind? What if an alien flying saucer came to Earth as part of a test for a young alien trying its hand at driving around and abducting a human? And what if that alien student driver was extremely bad at the task? That’s “Lifted” in a nutshell, a largely silent short full of great sight gags. Considering that this played in front of the exemplary Ratatouille, itself featuring a slapstick-y relationship between its hero and a gawky human, “Lifted”’s take on aliens and humans felt exceptionally appropriate, and exceptionally funny.
2. “Sanjay’s Super Team”
Nearly 25 years after making their first feature, it’s kind of surprising Pixar hasn’t been more heavily criticized for an unavoidable and largely inexcusable fact: Many of their (often excellent) films and shorts are made by and feature white people, mostly white men. A single short can’t balance the scales, but “Sanjay’s Super Team” was an incredibly vivid and entertaining representation of how compelling it can be to watch a vision from a person of color. Directed by Sanjay Patel, “Sanjay’s Super Team” takes an autobiographical tack as we see a young Indian boy fantasize the Hindu idols in his house as superheroes. The short was placed in front of The Good Dinosaur, still Pixar’s lowest-grossing film, so it’s likely that some people never saw this, which is a shame. It’s a sneaky delight.
Sometimes, the best shorts aren’t about showing off technology, and they’re not even about making audience members feel sad. The best Pixar short is certainly animated with crisp attention to detail, vivid colors, and memorable images, and it’s even got a bit of pathos near the end. But “Presto” is all about making you laugh, and thank goodness for that. It’s a short in which the sight of a magician pulling a rabbit out of a hat gets turned on its ear, as the rabbit rebels against the genuinely magical showman so it can get a nibble or two of a carrot. No other Pixar short pays such homage to the Looney Tunes shorts the way Presto, from director Doug Sweetland, does. It’s the funniest, wildest, most clever short Pixar’s ever made.
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