Back in the day up and coming directors would cut their teeth on TV commercials. More recently the testing ground has become the short film feature. They pass in the blink of an eye and can be anything from four to fifteen minutes in length. Pixar have developed a nifty line in funky shorts with a self-contained narrative. Their super clinical approach always felt tailor made for the format, but have in many ways made it their own creation. The company started making shorts in the 1980s when they were ostensibly an IT company. The shorts later evolved as a promotional tool for feature length films produced by the company. Characters would appear and provide additional content to support the main feature. Pixar shorts now occupy a distinct niche in the film industry that has become a byword for creativity.
With chief animator John Lasseter at the helm they steadily grew in prominence despite initial concerns about cost and return. The tone was set as Lasseter would later direct feature length movies including Toy Story, A Bug’s Life and Cars. Although little more than a short burst of creative energy the Pixar short packs a surprisingly deep narrative. It could be a statement of the human condition or a straight forward morality tale.
For example, in Geri’s Game (1997) an elderly gentleman plays chess with himself in the park. It was evidently his ‘modest side’ triumphing over his ‘confident side’. I sense it also drew attention to the solitude that confronts the elderly. Either way, it was good enough to win Pixar the Oscar for best short animated feature.
A wistful mood often takes hold as the line between dream and reality crosses back and forth. In Red’s Dream (1987) a unicycle sits in the corner of a cycle shop. Red dreams of upstaging a clown before the dream breaks and finds itself still in the shop. In Bau (2018), a woman is preparing a meal for her husband. One of the buns comes alive and she raises it like a child. In reality it’s a dream of her raising her own son with whom she is estranged. A sweet and touching narrative tugs at the heartstrings in the most unexpected way. The enchanting La Luna (2011) lands on Bambino, a young boy who goes on a midnight boat trip with his father and grandfather. Once in the designated spot, a ladder is set for Bambino to climb and set anchor on the moon. Their task is to sweep fallen stars off the moon’s surface. The maxim here is ‘always be yourself and do things your way’.
In Lou (2017), a creature hides in a lost and found box at kindergarten. Lou carefully retrieves toys after playtime so the children can find them. However, a boy called J.J. begins stealing toys belonging to his classmates. Lou decides to teach him a lesson and shows him a toy that been stolen from him previously. He will give him the toy on condition he returns all the stolen toys to their rightful owner. Quite aside from the visuals it delivers a simple but effective message ‘if you do good for someone else they’ll do good for you’.
Elsewhere they will use a dazzling metaphor to represent a blossoming romance or affairs of the heart. In the Blue Umbrella (2013), the red and blue variety fall in love during a thunder storm in the big city. They pursue each other through a sea of umbrellas as circumstances conspire against them. The continental styling gave the film je ne sais quai even if the sentiment was overplayed. The lilting Hawaiian vibe of Lava (2014) used a song to tell the story of a lonely volcano waiting for his soul mate to arrive.
A notable characteristic is the frequent absence of dialogue and removal of all language barriers. The happy consequence is a reliance on slapstick humour which checks in with virtually all cultures. One of Pixar’s earliest successes was Tin Toy (1988), the tale of a one man band and its desperate attempts to avoid a playful and destructive baby called Billy. Another short written and directed by John Lasseter was Knick Knack (1989). This portrayed an angry snowman using guerrilla tactics to break out of a snow globe. Lasseter was influenced by the work of Chuck Jones and Tex Avery (creators of Tom & Jerry) and is much in evidence on both of these films.
Perhaps inevitably, the shorts that linger longest in the memory are those associated with a feature length film. The brilliant Lamp Life (2020) features Woody catching up with Bo Peep as she explains her absence between Toy Story 2 and 4. The following seven minutes is crammed full of gags as she elaborates on her gig adorning a table lamp.
Pixar shorts were films we often missed as they would be aired at film festivals or remain buried on redundant DVDs. But with a plethora of streaming services at our fingertips we can view them whenever the mood takes us. Now we can appreciate the skill and ingenuity demanded by the format.
The ability to fit a coherent narrative into such a limited time frame is an admirable quality. When the Pixar titles go up and that hyperactive desk lamp begins to bounce around we expect something special, it’s a high bar to maintain but they seem to be doing alright at the moment?