Entertainment

Pixar's Short Films, Ranked

piper pixar short films
Disney/Pixar

Before Pixar fans went to go see A Bug's Life, they got a brief meditation on aging and loneliness. Before they saw Toy Story 3, they got an almost abstract hybrid of 2-D and 3-D animation as two blobs representing "day" and "night" tussled. This is the beauty of the Pixar shorts.

The company has been showcasing the smaller work of its animators alongside its feature films for almost as long as it's been making the latter. In them, the studio has snuck in bits of its company history, wove in threads from its bigger works, and let emerging artists shine. Along the way, it has won some Oscars for these endeavors -- most recently picking up one for the splendid seaside romp Piper in 2017.

While the shorts are often sweetly charming, they shouldn't be written off as fluff. Pixar began more as an experimental animation incubator, testing the medium's limits through short films, and these are still where its creators flex, testing out new technology and strange storylines. Take, for instance, the company's latest: Bao, which screens with Incredibles 2, manages to go to some unsettling places while also generating deep sentiment for an animated dumpling. In honor of Bao's arrival, we've ranked these little masterpieces.

(Note: This list only includes the short films that ran before Pixar's feature films in theaters.)

knick knack
Pixar

17. Knick Knack

Released with: Finding Nemo (2003)
Six years before Toy Story, the first feature release, Pixar made one of its most defeated shorts ever. Written and directed by John Lasseter, Knick Knack tells the story of a cooped-up snowman who wants nothing more than to raise his coal-brows and hang with the bikini-clad figurine outside his snowglobe. The short's age definitely shows -- in the animation, but especially in its sense of humor. Despite a number of quality sight gags (the blowtorch! the fishbowl twist!), the real motivation propelling the story is, well, boobs. A classic short, to be sure -- one that stood as a testament to what Pixar was technologically capable of -- but also one that, particularly in light of the sexual harassment allegations against Lasseter, has aged the worst. -- Sean Fitz-Gerald

boundin'
Pixar

16. Boundin'

Released with: The Incredibles (2004)
Pixar’s best stories are those that can speak to two audiences at the same time; the Oscar-nominated Boundin' is a short where children feel like the explicit target. The Montana it depicts, inspired by legendary Pixar character designer (and voice of Incredibles' Rick Dicker) Bud Luckey's childhood in Billings, is of course gorgeous, colorful, and sparse. Told in Dr. Seussian rhythmic pentameter, the self-acceptance tale of a sheep shorn and embarrassed for the first time, reads too straightforward in well-trodden territory, and the mythical Jackalope’s "bound, bound, bound, and rebound'" confidence-building mantra is an unnecessary lane change for a studio that excels in subtlety. -- Leanne Butkovic

lava
Pixar

15. Lava

Released with: Inside Out (2015)
Most Pixar shorts are dialogue-free. Lava proves why this is a good thing. A lonely volcano, isolated in the sea, sings a treacly song about how he is looking for someone to "lava." Eventually he finds a lady volcano companion, who also seeks "lava." Now, what's confusing here is that in the tune "lava" is subbed in for "love;" however, the actual molten substance is also referenced. This is all to say that Lava itself makes absolutely no sense. It's not that we expect perfect logic from a piece of animation, but Lava's leaps pander to bring it to its romantic conclusion. -- Esther Zuckerman

lou
Pixar

14. Lou

Released with: Cars 3 (2017)
Many of the best Pixar shorts string together bursts of kinetic action and physical gags that build towards a melancholy (or sentimental) finale, much like their feature films do. Lou, a short about a creature assembled from items in a playground "lost and found" box, doesn't exactly break that mold, but by attempting to deliver a thoughtful message about bullying it does have a bit more of a do-gooder angle than some of the more madcap cartoons. Given the setting and the subject matter, the after-school-special tone doesn't exactly feel out of place. But does that make it preachy? Not exactly, but it's also not as moving or as clever as some of the studio's other works. -- Dan Jackson

for the birds
Pixar

13. For the Birds

Released with: Monsters, Inc. (2001)
Written and directed by Ralph Eggleston (Toy Story, basically everything else), there's not a ton to For the Birds. But that's its strength -- it's basically just one quick joke played out over the course of three minutes. A flock of tiny birds gathers on an electrical wire, kind of enjoying each other's company, until they spot a gangly outsider, something resembling Big Bird's blue cousin. The bigger bird's a kook, earning the derision of his smaller ilk, but it's not long before karma enters and flaps up a whirlwind. While the substance here is light, For the Birds is still funny, simple, and gorgeous (the details of the birds ruffling their feathers? I mean, c'mon!). Rightfully so, this short has an Oscar to show for all of that. -- SFG

lifted
Pixar

12. Lifted

Released with: Ratatouille (2007)
This Oscar-nominated short about an alien attempting its first abduction comes from a surprisingly personal place. Writer and director Gary Rydstrom, who's known for his sound work on Jurassic Park and Minority Report, has said, "I was making a little short movie about what it's like to mix sound, where you do this technically difficult task with someone standing behind you and judging you." That little green alien's massive control board contains many metaphors: the ever-relatable frustrations of undertaking a task one isn't entirely prepared for, the troubles that seem to multiply when things` aren't going your way. Though there's zero dialogue, there's tons of physical comedy -- a stamp that makes Lifted a ton of fun. -- SFG

bao
Pixar

11. Bao

Released with: Incredibles 2 (2018)
The most recent addition to the canon, Bao features a moment that is sure to scar some children. Animator Domee Shi created this surrealist fable about a Chinese woman who makes a dumpling that comes to life, squealing, just as she's about to bite into it. The bao becomes her surrogate child with all of the love and frustration that human children offer. (You see how this might get nightmarish when eating enters the equation.) Where it ends up, ultimately, is in food-as-metaphor territory, morphing into a meditation on overly attached mothering. Bao's abrupt shift in tone is jarring, and where you land on its fundamental weirdness might influence how effective it is. Still, it's a landmark moment: Shi is the first ever woman to direct a short for the company, and it injects some cultural diversity into the often very white Pixar universe. -- EZ

the blue umbrella
Pixar

10. The Blue Umbrella

Released with: Monsters University (2013)
In its opening moments as the city comes to life, The Blue Umbrella almost feels like a minimalist musical: Stomp re-imagined with raindrops and leaks. The photo-realistic animation on display here occasionally makes this cross into the uncanny valley territory, particularly in the close-ups of puddles and street lights, but director Saschka Unseld wisely keeps humans out of this story altogether. Instead, it's a lovely romance between two umbrellas, a charming tale of yearning desire and bad weather. (Honestly, it also works as an effective ad for rain gear.) It gets a little repetitive as our blue hero gets knocked around, but it never overstays its welcome. -- DJ

one man band
Pixar

9. One Man Band

Released with: Cars (2006)
There's a long tradition of animated shorts centered around a rivalry between two parties -- think Tom and Jerry or Wile E. Coyote and Roadrunner -- and Pixar has often tweaked those tropes with its own shorts, discovering new gags in old premises and reworking familiar archetypes. One Man Band, which focuses on two troubadours in the Middle Ages competing for a cookie from a child, is the type of short that probably could have been created at any point in the 20th century. What Pixar lends it is a smart-ass vibe. That doesn't mean it's not effective, especially as the warring musicians reveal new hidden instruments in their armor, like James Bond unveiling new gadgets in his souped-up Aston Martin. Give them all the cookies for this one. -- DJ

presto
Pixar

8. Presto

Released with: WALL-E (2008)
This show bunny just really wants a carrot. That’s the gist of this Doug Sweetland short, which turns into a riotous homage to your favorite old-school cartoons. See, Presto the magician thinks it’s a craving that can wait, which is unfortunate for the bunny -- and Presto, as he finds himself in a magical duel that he probably can’t win. Fortunate for viewers, though, since it means there's five minutes of non-stop, hilariously punishing slapstick comedy, a la Looney Toons and Tom and Jerry. -- SFG

partly cloudy
Pixar

7. Partly Cloudy

Released with: Up (2009)
Pixar's weaponization of cuteness can be diabolical. Partly Cloudy, a short that puts a spin on the familiar folklore about storks delivering babies, features the following: cute clouds, cute puppies, cute kittens, and cute human babies. It's a little exhausting and threatens to nauseate more cynical viewers. Smartly, the filmmakers undercut the cloying quality by building the story around two charming underdogs, a weary-looking stork and a stormy-looking cloud. The dynamic between the pair of co-workers is darkly funny -- basically, the cloud keeps creating exquisitely painful baby creatures for the stork to carry back to Earth -- but it's also disarmingly sweet. -- DJ

day and night
Pixar

6. Day & Night

Released with: Toy Story 3 (2010)
From its beginnings as a testing ground for computer animation techniques in the '70s and '80s, Pixar has always prized technical innovation over taking the easy route. On the surface, Teddy Newton's playful story about an occasionally contentious relationship between the concepts of daytime and nighttime, personified by two competitive buddies, is absurdly simple. Is there no idea Pixar can't anthropomorphize into a charming rascal? But by combining familiar 2-D animation tropes with sophisticated 3-D animation tricks, Day & Night taps into some profound truths while dazzling the senses. It's a feat of imagination and wit, assisted by a delightful score from Incredibles composer Michael Giacchino and some wise words from philosopher Wayne Dyer. (Note: The sound is pretty essential for this one, so we don't recommend watching the bootleg version on YouTube with the Kid Cudi song mixed in it.) -- DJ

sanjay's super team
Pixar

5. Sanjay's Super Team

Released with: The Good Dinosaur (2015)
One of Pixar’s most exciting shorts, Sanjay’s Super Team centers on a young Indian boy learning to embrace his culture, and closing the generational chasm between him and his father. Sanjay Patel injected this semi-autobiographical archetypal father-son relationship with Hindu mythology to create something at once unique and relatable. The resulting spectacle is a blast, punctuated by a new technique Patel called "illogical lighting," that marvelously warped sense of reality. As the deities Hanaman, Durga, and Vishnu come to life, you’ll find yourself on the edge of your seat, and as Sanjay returns from his journey of self-discovery, you'll find yourself wiping a tear off your cheek. Sanjay’s Super Team covers a wide emotional range in mere minutes, and it becomes universal in large part because of its specifics. But the specifics here also marked a major moment when the short debuted, representing the studio’s first onscreen depiction of Indian family life. As Patel told The Verge in 2015, "It felt really important to me to have America see this, and have Pixar and Disney say it's normal." -- SFG

la luna
Pixar

4. La Luna

Released with:Brave (2012)
At almost seven minutes, La Luna clocks in as one of Pixar's longest shorts, but this surrealist coming-of-age reckoning is so stunning, the run-time is hardly a hangup. Director Enrico Casarosa wrote La Luna as a reflection of his childhood growing up in Genoa, Italy, parlaying his headbutting father and grandfather into the generational caretakers of the moon inducting the next of kin into the family's line of duty. Inspired by Italo Calvino's short story "The Distance of the Moon" from the Cosmicomics collection and Hayao Miyazaki's Castle in the Sky, La Luna relies on a lyrical push-and-pull, romantically heightened by Michael Giacchino's score, that culminates in a breathtaking, time-stopping climax and ends on a lesson about following your instincts. Plus, the ASMR-inducing moon raking is visual and aural gold. -- LB

luxo
Pixar

3. Luxo Jr.

Released with:Toy Story 2 (1999)
No short on this list is more influential than 1986's Luxo Jr., the piece of animation that defined Pixar's brand and birthed its desk lamp mascot. Pixar was a fledgling enterprise when president Ed Catmull asked John Lasseter to make something to show off at an upcoming conference. Lasseter, as he explained in an old interview with Entertainment Weekly, was inspired by the Luxo lamp on his desk and his co-worker's newborn baby. "I was noticing how the scale of a child’s head to his body was very different, and is part of what makes him really cute," he said. "So I looked at the lamp and wondered, what would a baby lamp look like?" What resulted is as elemental as a game of ball between a father and son -- which is basically what Luxo Jr. documents in computer animation that was groundbreaking for its time. In it, an overeager lamp child plays while his parent watches with caution. But Luxo Jr. demonstrates what Pixar can do that we now take so much for granted. The desk accoutrements register as fully realized beings with personalities despite the fact that they don't have any faces. It takes less than two minutes for you to grow attached to them, winding fans up for years of joy and heartbreak to come. -- EZ

piper
Pixar

2. Piper

Released with:Finding Dory (2016)
Piper doesn't have an especially intricate storyline as it tracks an adorable baby sandpiper who gets into some hijinks as she meets the tide for the very first time. She's unnerved by the water at first, but figures out the best way to catch clams with help from a hermit crab. But -- in addition to being, yes, incredibly cute -- it's a downright visual marvel. Director Alan Barillaro crafted a photorealistic vision of this seascape, a process that involved wrangling new technology that allowed artists to craft Piper's feathers. Complicated, but worth it because what ultimately unfolds, is a symphony of gurgling water, grainy sand, and fluttering plumage. -- EZ

geri's game
Pixar

1. Geri's Game

Released with: A Bug's Life (1998)
Geri's Game could be written off as a weird, wistful short film about an old man who cheats to win a game of chess, where the stakes are his own dentures, in the park against himself. But this 1997 Oscar-winning short needs to be considered in totality: for the story itself -- which is strange, yes, but also a meditative and sublime inquiry into aging, loneliness, and selfhood -- for its precedence setting, for its technological breakthroughs. As the first short film in eight years, Geri's Game was Pixar's revival of the form. It conquered new animation techniques to make humans seem, well, human. The figure's depth, range of facial expressions, the movement of Geri's clothes, are all momentous details that have influenced everything following. From then on, we expected short films before our Pixar movies. Geri himself, stylistically ripped from director/writer Jan Pinkava's idol, Czech animator Jiří Trnka, and his marionette-like figures, is a continuity totem of the Pixar universe, reappearing in Toy Story 2 as The Cleaner who fixes up Woody. For being two decades old, Geri's Game hasn't befell to the uncanny valley, and remains a master class in just how much one effective character can accomplish. -- LB

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