As the lights go down in theaters nationwide to play Incredibles 2, audiences know what to expect to see: Resplendent visual storytelling, emotive music, a little action, and a lot of heart. And that’s before the movie even starts. We’re talking the short films Pixar shows before their films, an accompanying appetizer setting the mood for the main course, something the company has done since Toy Story 2. The tradition was interrupted when Disney forced a 22-minute Frozen episode to go with Coco, and resumes this week with Bao, the short attached to Incredibles 2, and the first Pixar film to be directed by an Asian woman.
Collectively, the Pixar shorts have won three Academy Awards for Best Animated Short Film, and run the gamut of emotions and genre: from wild slapstick to gentle fantasies, eliciting the same rush of laughter, tears, and thrills that one of their best features could. We’ve seen all of these theatrical efforts, and now we’re ranking the Pixar shorts from worst to best!
(Note we’re only ranking shorts that played with a Pixar feature. Party Central, set in the Monsters University universe and theatrically attached to Muppets Most Wanted, probably would’ve ranked between Hawaiian Vacation and Bao.)
#18None of the Pixar shorts are outright bad. Some are just less inspired than others, just like this sketch about a Ken and Barbie stowaway trip gone awry. It coasts by on your familiarity with the characters, banking on the fact that any playtime with Woody and friends is a guaranteed good time. That’s true, but with Toy Story 4 coming whether anyone wanted it or not, this short feels even more inconsequential as a result.
#17An older, lonely Chinese woman living in her empty nest house with her husband receives a delightful surprise: a dumpling she made has turned into a cute, living creature. As the dumpling matures and enters various stages of adolescence, we consider the impermanence and fleeting nature of time. Gentle and benign, this short is a bit too soft to make a true impact. Some weird editing also raises questions (“Wait, was the dumpling a real boy the whole time?”) that don’t seem intentional. But might have been. We don’t know.
#16The 1980s shorts laid the foundation and argument for Pixar as creative artists, and not just a factory churning out images for TV commercials. But we can’t also ignore that the achievements of Knick Knack and Luxo Jr. have been eclipsed by everything Pixar has done since. These early shorts (along with The Adventures of Andre and Wally B) are essentially proof-of-concepts that computer animation could be used to create expressive characters and mood. With Knick Knack, director John Lasseter aped Looney Tunes to make a comedic short based on movement, speed, and slapstick. It works, it’s worth watching once, and then moving on alongside Pixar, towards their evolution to Toy Story.
#15Though Pixar was making huge strides in computer animation from the ’80s on, it’d be decades before they got far along enough to make human characters fully pleasing to the eye with The Incredibles. In the interim, they sought to give sentient characteristics to inanimate objects, most famously with Luxo Jr. Their trademark logo lamp and the ball with star (which appears in every Pixar movie as an easter egg) all come from this short, a simple story of appliances interacting with each other like parent and child.
#14A love story set across thousands or even millions of years, about a volcano in the middle of the ocean singing (backed by ukulele) for love. Another volcano can hear his song…she just happens to be deep beneath the ocean surface. Cute and mawkish, it’s the most emotionally blunt and simple of all the Pixar shorts, which irritated a lot of people. But get on its effervescent level, and it can rend and mend the heart.
#13An extraterrestrial lackey is learning how to abduct humans. He and his supervisor guide their spacecraft over a farmhouse, and attempt pulling the snoozing Earthling inside. The bland alien design, insistently plain ship architecture, and the fact the guy never wakes up despite being thrown around like a pinball (part of the comedy, but stunts the tension) hold this one back.
#12A semi-autobiographical look into the childhood of Pixar director Sanjay Patel, we see him a child being pulled away from a superhero TV show by his father to engage in prayer. Sanjay’s mind wanders, and soon we’re locked beside him in an imaginative battle with Hindu deities. A good example of Pixar using their short film work to expand cultural and ethnic representation on the big screen.
#11A meetcute between two umbrellas — one blue, one red — threatens to never occur due to windy weather, city traffic, and the fact that umbrellas have no agency of their own. Enter various public objects of urban planning like storm drains, manhole covers, and mailboxes (if you’re into pareidolia, boy, are you in luck here) who do everything in their limited, stationary power to get these umbrellas together. This short is another in Pixar’s long history of anthropomorphizing every day things, combined with dramatic, noirish lighting.
#10Two one-man-bands vie for the attention, and money, of a young girl in a European village square. As you’d expect, the music is the real star of the show and composer Michael Giacchino, hot off the success of The Incredibles, doesn’t disappoint. The dueling instruments — drums, violins, trumpets, and much more — wail back and forth, rising into a brilliant cacophony of noise. The stylized human faces are unique in the Pixar oeuvre, looking more at home with Laika’s brand of art.
#9An old man sets down at a park table to engage in a chess game with his greatest challenge: himself. The quick edits, which grow more rapid as the match escalates, bounce the viewer back and forth. At the time, this was an enormous leap forward in movement and facial expressions, convincing audiences that one day we could see a CG-animated movie populated entirely with humans and not be creeped out.
#8A delightful and imaginative little fantasy, about three generations of guys in a boat who use a ladder to ascend to the moon and sweep fallen stars off its surface. Fans of magical realist literature will immediately recognize this as director Enrico Casarosa’s nod to author Italo Calvino and his classic short story, “The Distance of the Moon”. La Luna is as comforting as lying in darkness, watching the stars and moon trail across the night sky.
#7A goofy-looking bird approaches its aviary contemporaries on a wire, who proceed to mock and ostracize the odd bird, with unforeseen consequences. With its quick pacing and amusing bird calls, this is Pixar back in the pure slapstick mode a la Knick Knack to great effect. Directors are always (or at least should be) seeking the simplest linework in-camera to frame and present action sequences, and what’s simpler than squabbling birds on a wire? Genius.
#6The contents of a lost-and-found at a school unify to create an elemental creature with baseballs and buttons for eyes, and sweaters for arms and legs. “Lou” lumbers around when class is in session, collecting forgotten and discarded toys left behind, and is called into action when a bully starts terrorizing the playground. The endlessly creative ways Lou stretches, slides, and twists around in his schoolyard battle as a literal pile of crap makes this, physiologically, Pixar’s highest triumph in character design.
#5With its photorealistic sand, limpid water effects, and soft purple pastels coloring the horizon, this is the most visually accomplished of all the Pixar shorts. Piper‘s another exploration of Pixar’s favorite animals: birds — specifically, sandpipers who brave ocean tides as they scavenge for nutrients nestled beneath the beach shore. There isn’t much drama to the short, though it does tap into the primal thrill we had as kids rushing into the ocean back and forth. The main sandpiper grows through its ability to adapt, a cute nod to Darwin, who developed his theory of natural selection observing the eating habits of island birds.
#4Where do babies come from? According to this short, they’re formed through cloud condensation, with the tiny humans and animals then delivered by storks to their new homes on the planet surface. Each stork is assigned to a cloud, and our unfortunate flyer is attached to the cloud that produces the prickliest, most poisonous, and most pernicious babies known to Earth. It’s a story of perseverance and empathy, and a fine wrinkle on the stork-and-babies myth.
#3The story of Ziggy-esque blobs who are diametrically opposed: one is all about daytime activities, while the other is all about things to do when the sun’s gone. After a minor scuffle and major kerfuffle, the two learn how they can compliment each other. An obvious lesson, but the traditional animation, combined with some live elements, showed that Pixar’s storytelling prowess extended beyond the computer monitor.
#2A haughty sheep with its coat so fair is thrown into throes of sadness when all of his wool is sheared off. He’s left trembling and pink in the rain, until a carefree jackalope bounds along to teach him a new way of seeing life. Boundin’ starts off corny (and stays that way, actually), but it doesn’t take long to lower your cynical shields and abide by the jackalope’s positive and carefree philosophy — a lesson that never goes out of style.
#1The magician Presto and his magic hat are about to take the stage, but his angry un-fed show rabbit sabotages the routine, involving crashing pianos, nut shots, and electric shocks. The tradition of cartoon physical comedy has always been a guiding light for Pixar, and they at last created a short to stand alongside Looney Tunes classics like Duck Amuck, Rabbit of Seville, or Feed the Kitty. A 5-minute masterclass in controlled chaos, Presto turns hardship into entertainment, and ends with a bewildered audience bursting into applause — a fine metaphor that peak Pixar are kings of crowd-pleasing showmanship.