Pixar, which began life as the Graphics Group, part of LucasFilm, back in 1979, producing high end computer imaging hardware, and was once owned by Steve Jobs until sold to Disney in 2006 for $7.4 billion, is generally regarded as the preeminent purveyor of modern computer animation.
Films like Toy Story (1995), Monsters Inc. (2001), Finding Nemo (2003) and UP (2009) have earned the studio an enviable reputation for producing animated tales that combine dazzling state of the art animation with exquisitely detailed stories that place a premium on depth of storytelling and rich characterisation.
Their ability to produce superlative film after superlative film has earned them 27 Academy Awards, the rare distinction of attracting both critical praise and moviegoer acclaim, and has seen Finding Nemo and Toy Story 3 place in the top 50 films of all time.
While it is obviously their feature films which attract the lion’s share of attention, their delightful shorts, which have appeared ahead of every movie they’ve released since A Bug’s Life in 1998 (although four were made for Sesame Street in the early ’90s), are also seen as masterpieces of narrative brevity and visual wonder, anticipated almost as much as the films they accompany.
Granted it is near impossible to pick just 5 of their delightful shorts out of the approximately 25 they have produced, but I have given it a shot, selecting the following animated gems based on their story lines, their whimsy, abundant heart and soul, and yes, ability to make me laugh.
Who of us can’t relate to wanting to desperately fit it with the cool kids, the in-crowd and finding our every attempt to do so rebuffed with sneers, scorn and a host of dirty tricks designed to push us away and humiliate us in the process?
And who hasn’t wished that the clique’s often successful attempts to exclude outsiders, despite our fervent prayers to the universe that justice would prevail and in dramatic fashion, would come back to bite them fairly and squarely on the proverbial?
In For The Birds, which preceded Monsters Inc. in 2001, justice is finally served in a cloud of feathers and exquisitely embarrassed naked pink little birds, and the tormentors, the excluders, are bested, though not intentionally by a goofy, genuinely friendly larger bird who, ostensibly all alone in the world, simply wanted to hang with those of his avian ilk.
They, of course, would have none of it, doing everything possible in their power to harass and push away the interloper until gravity (and I would like to think the universe) intervene and bring their grubby exclusionary tactics to nought.
It’s this combination of a pithy social message (to which I can very much relate after being merciless bullied all the way through school), classic visual comedy, and a central character who is drawn to perfection in all his gangly, happy, just-wanting-to-fit-in glory that make For The Birds one of my enduringly favourite Pixar shorts.
Learning can be quite a scary thing.
On one hand it’s exciting to be given fresh responsibility, the chance to prove ourselves; on the other, well, it’s scary as hell, leaving us feeling like we have no talent whatsoever, impostors who will be found out at any moment.
Pixar captures the agony and ecstasy of the learning curve perfectly in Lifted, which was paired with 2006’s Ratatouille, with the eager young apprentice alien Stu, given the responsibility of abducting his first human, Ernie, from an isolated farmhouse out on the prairie fields of the midwest,finding the multitude of toggle switches, and their uses, more than a little challenging.
Desperately trying to impress his impassive, seen-it-all-before overseer Mr. B, who doesn’t offer a skerrick of help, Stu flicks one switch then another then another, bouncing Ernie around the room like a piñata in a gale.
It is spot-on perfect Lucille Ball-esque slapstick physical comedy which doesn’t finish when Stu finally works out the right switch to bring Ernie into the computer.
In short order he manages to drop Ernie from the ship, who is only saved by the quick action of Mr. B, and flatten his farmhouse, bar a small pillar of earth upon which rests the farmer’s bed, leaving the hapless almost-alien abductee to rise and shine, sight unseen in the credits, into the crater Stu’s first day on the job has created.
Again Pixar winningly taps into a universal experience – in this case being on the nerve-wracking rocky escarpment of the learning curve – and does it with pathos, comic verve and an eye for the sort of classically funny visual gags that have powered comedy since time began.
PARTLY CLOUDY (2009)
Continuing the theme of great and vexing challenges, Partly Cloudy, the companion short to UP (2009), explores the affectionate but stressful relationship between one beleaguered stork Peck and a dark and stormy cloud named Gus, one of a collective of fluffy white agglomerations of water vapour churning out all assortments of baby living creatures.
While his beatifically smiling, shiny white cohorts high above are creating human babies and kittens and puppies and chicks, all carried to their new homes by their happy, clearly contented partner storks, Gus is charged with giving life to the less cuddly members the animal world such as bighorn sheep, crocodiles, porcupines and sharks.
Hardly a dream assignment.
It takes its toll on Peck, who drawing the line at delivering a baby shark to its prospective parent, appears to fly away to join up with another cloud much to Gus’s thunderstorm-unleashing anger and then misery.
But Peck hasn’t left at all, simply asking Gus’s fellow cloud to make him some protective football gear so all the porcupine needles and sharp crocodile teeth won’t bother him … well, as much anyway.
It seems like a master plan till Gus brings forth his next delivery – an electric eel. BZZZT!
Partly Cloudy is as much about coping with the seeming un-copeable as it is about the strong bonds of friendship, which if they’re tight enough – and the ones between Gus and Peck seem pretty strong despite everything – can weather pretty much anything thrown at them.
Gus’s delight at Peck’s return is one of the loveliest moments of any of the shorts, and it’s all backed by Pixar’s trademark whimsically old time music (in this case by Michael Giacchino) which conjures up just the right picture perfect Leave it to Beaver idealised 1950s bliss.
DUG’S SPECIAL MISSION (2009)
I cannot begin to express how much I love Dug the Golden Retriever!
Attached to the DVD release of UP (2009), which is widely regarded as one of the most emotionally-affecting films Pixar has ever produced – the opening scenes detailing the long and happy life of Carl and Ellie Fredericksen is one of the most openings to any movie ever – Dug’s Special Mission effectively acts as a mini-prequel of sorts to the scene which introduces Dug to Carl and his young Wilderness Explorer Russell when they first reach Paradise Falls in South America.
As garrulous and happy as his canine companions are nasty and brutal, Dug simply wants to make friends, remaining delightfully oblivious to both his master’s nefarious intentions and the blatant disregard of the rest of his pack – Alpha (a Doberman Pinscher), Beta (a Rottweiler) and Gamma (a Bulldog).
And in this short Dug is convinced that he is going to have the BEST … DAY … EVER! because it’s his birthday and that’s what happens right?
Well in Dug’s happy world it does but Alpha and the others simply see the loveable, super-friendly mutt as a great pain in the proverbial and do everything they can to keep him out of their way.
It doesn’t work and after Gus prevents them capturing the big colourful bird that features heavily in UP, Dug is reported to his master as the one who derailed the mission, causing him to run away, fearful of retribution and sad that the day is going to be as good as he thought.
But it all ends well when he meets Carl and Russell and frankly if his utter joy at coming across his new masters doesn’t stir your heart to bursting, you’re clearly unable to feel at all.
Just how great a triumph this short is, at least in my case, is evidenced by the fact that I, a cat person to the core, could find myself wanting to own a dog just like Dug – now that’s some compelling storytelling!
HAWAIIAN VACATION (2011)
I could hardly leave out one of the Toy Story shorts now could I?
While it was ridiculously hard to choose between Hawaiian Vacation (2011), Small Fry (2011 with The Muppets) and Partysaurus Rex (2012 with Findind Nemo 3D), not to mention the recently screened Halloween special Toy Story of Terror (2013), there was something about this particular short, which manages to combine the manic energy of the Toy Story tales with all the sentiment and whimsy you could want, that gets me every time.
With Bonnie off to Hawaii on holidays, the toys think they have a week to chill, have fun, kick back and do whatever they please – that is until Ken and Barbie burst out of the little girl’s school backpack, mistakenly thinking she has taken it and them with her on winter vacation.
While Barbie knows they’re not really in Hawaii, Ken, as always a few colourful, perfectly coordinated outfits short of a full wardrobe, can’t quite comprehend they’re still at home so the toys, with Woody and Buzz in charge, recreate all the Hawaiian moments that Barbie was hoping they’d experience.
Which includes naturally a romantic kiss at sunset, only this one takes place out in the snow with Barbie and Ken lost in romantic bliss till they step off the porch and are buried in snow which then freezes into a solid block of ice that the toys have to free them from in a post-credits scene.
Hawaiian Vacation is Toy Story at its best – warm hearted, silly, over the top, with quips aplenty and all the heart tugging emotion you could ask for.
If I could live in a world where Toy Story shorts like this one came out all the time, I would be a very happy man indeed.
*So which Pixar shorts are your favourites and why?