Pixar shorts are like the roots of the beautiful tree of Pixar’s feature films. They play like small extensions of these more prominent films with moral themes of their own. With its first release of Luxury Jr. in 1986, Pixar Animation Studios have kept up this condensed form of storytelling throughout the years. Usually released as a small piece before the new Pixar film, the shorts have become a recognized staple in the studio. Audiences are already expecting the quick but delightful Pixar short to set the tone for the new movie.
Despite their briefer run time, these shorts manage to pack the same or even more emotional gravitas than the feature films. Primarily relying on images and musical scores alone, the Pixar short is predominantly character-driven. It also serves the purpose of offering roles of leadership to newer storytellers in the studio. In doing so, the Pixar shorts have become diverse in their narratives and moral imagery. Each film is unique in its style and narrative arcs but still stays true to the Pixar themes of hope and love.
Ranking the Pixar shorts is no small feat. How’s it possible to narrow down over 20 Pixar shorts into a ranked list of nine films from worst to best? Well, here’s how.
9. Day & Night
What happens when binaries become challenging to understand between one another? In the case of Pixar’s Day & Night, directed by Teddy Newton (Boys Night Out), it’s about the give and takes. In this endearing short film about understanding differences, Day & Night tackles one of the most fundamental lessons children learn: accepting one another for who they are, no matter how different they may seem.
There’s no greater polar opposite than day and night, which is why this film uses it as a point of comparison. If such contrasting binaries can ultimately get along, anyone can find common ground even in unlikely places with someone different from themselves. With each bit of graphic that embodies “Day” and “Night,” the audiences are invited to find joy in the differences learned by each. Whether it’s a sunny day at the beach or a night in the busy lights of Vegas, there’s always something to share.
8. The Moon
Directed by Enrico Casarosa (Luca), The Moon is the fable of a young boy’s coming of age set in the middle of the ocean. Tasked with clearing away the moon’s shining lights in the form of stars to set the moon’s new cycle, the young boy is under the tutelage of his father and grandfather. In the middle of a dispute over how the young boy should learn to clear up the stars, in the end, he’s the one to determine for himself.
More importantly, the young boy learns to bring joy to the fighting pair. After breaking apart the massive star into confetti of smaller shining lights, the father and grandfather quickly become the ones to learn from the young boy. It suddenly becomes a lesson on generational expectations. An audience may expect the boy to find himself through the lessons imposed by his father or grandfather. But they soon learn that the most important lessons are taught by others, even if they are much younger. The young boy teaches them again about the wondrous beauty of mistakes and trying new things.
7. Red’s Dream
One of former, disgraced Pixar head John Lasseter’s short films, Red’s Dream is about a red tricycle aspiring for more in life. With a slight nod to noir, the story follows Red into his fantasy of becoming the star of a juggling act. However, by the end of the film, all those dreams would remain as such, as it cuts back from his fantasy sequence to another rainy day at the bike store he rides in.
Red’s Dream is exactly what it says it is: dreaming. Children and adults alike harbor secret dreams that sometimes end up staying plans. However, there’s always this sliver of hope that resides in all to make those dreams come true. Red is in that in-between, that state between fantasy and reality.
One of Pixar’s few shorts where characters speak (or in this case, sing), Lava is a sweet portrayal of love and longing directed by James Ford Murphy (Miss Fritter’s Racing Skoool). The short musical centers around two volcanoes singing out to the possible loves of their lives. By the end of the film, the two volcanoes find one another through their calls of love. It’s a symbol of hope, of twin hearts that beat the odds and find happiness.
It’s also a portrayal of what everyone looks for and craves: love. Sometimes the most straightforward answer is to be open and never to give up. Even after the volcano sinks to the bottom of the ocean, hopeless, it still hears that call of hope from the other volcano, gifting enough inspiration in them to resurface, figuratively and literally, back to the light. It’s all about looking within one another to find that love and never give up.
5. Geri’s Game
An Academy Award-winner for Best Animated Short, Geri’s Game, directed by Jan Pikava (Ratatouille co-director), features an older gentleman playing chess at his local park. Geri’s Game is a celebration of aging and keeping the spirit of youth alive, but it’s also about defying the standards of youth.
It’s a jovial and fun depiction of an older man who refuses to lose the fun of life. As the game continues, Geri’s youthful energy touches viewers with its innocence and childlike wonder. It’s a sweet portrayal of aging that isn’t centered on the trials and tribulations of getting old. In this particular case, animation is used to enhance the internal, youthful nature of older people that doesn’t go away as time wears on.
Piper, directed by Alan Barillaro (a Monsters, Inc. animator), is about a young sandpiper learning to fend for herself. It’s also about underestimating young kids and their ability to overcome hardships. After being toppled by a giant wave, the young sandpiper becomes too afraid to get near the shore to eat. Eventually, with the help of a young crab who burrows into the sand whenever there’s a wave, the sandpiper learns to conquer her fear. It’s the young bird who begins to provide copious amounts of food for the older birds.
Sometimes it’s the simple things like birds on a shoreline that inspire films like Piper. When the idea struck, Barillaro was at the beach one day, watching sandpipers eat by the shore. Suddenly, the ordinary life of a sandpiper bird became the central figure of growing up and independence. It doesn’t hurt that the animation of the young birds invokes some of the most tender feelings from anyone watching, with baby feathers strewn over their faces and wide, shining little eyes peering up at the world.
3. 22 vs. Earth
This spin-off of feature film Soul, 22 vs. Earth, directed by Kevin Nolting (editor on Up), is the story of a yet-to-be-defined soul trying to convince other souls not to leave for Earth. Fearing a life of solitude, 22 dreads never finding out their purpose on Earth, leaving them stranded and watching their friends depart day in and day out.
Pixar shorts have the uncanny ability to say so much in such little time. With just a six-minute run time, 22 vs. Earth becomes a gut-wrenching depiction of human existentialism. 22’s distress around the human condition and purpose becomes palpable through the screen. It’s not so easily masked by the childlike animation, as it easily parallels the way children become agitated by their place in this world. It’s a clever and honest interpretation of the fears and insecurities most children face when they grow up. By the end, children can find some comfort in the idea that there’s no time limit for knowing their purpose in life. Sometimes the “meaning” of life is found by just existing.
2. Luxury Jr.
This is where the Pixar short begins. Its origin story. Directed by Lasseter, Luxury Jr. is memorable in its simplicity and charm. It’s the story of the now-famous Pixar lamp and its tiny lamp child playing with the familiar Pixar star ball. It’s the beginning of Pixar’s personification of inanimate objects that ultimately centers their feature debut.
Little lamp plays with the ball, much to the displeasure of the older lamp, until the ball breaks. Thinking that was that, the older lamp is surprised when the little lamp comes back with an even larger ball. It’s the story of giving life to two simple objects like lamps and became the studio logo running gag for most Pixar films. Innovative for its time in 1986, Luxury Jr. opened the door for Toy Story to become a raging success and even landed the studio an Academy Award nomination.
Pixar’s running motif of growing up is prevalent in films like Toy Story and Luca. In Domee Shi’s (Turning Red) nostalgic short Bag, viewers are treated to the mourning mothers go through when the unavoidable happens and their children grow.
In a symbolic depiction of the empty nest syndrome, an older Chinese mom copes through a dumpling that comes to life, and the reinvigoration of the mom’s spirit becomes the short’s warm focus. What does it mean to be a mom again? To somehow turn back the time and keep that child forever young? To this mother, it’s also a lesson for this mother to let go and see her son from a new perspective, where she and he are equals.
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