This week brings the release of the first Pixar movie in two years, Inside Out, which follows the personified emotions that drive an 11-year-old girl named Riley. The premiere also means another edition in a grand Pixar tradition: the accompanying short. Since the studio’s second feature, 1998’s A Bug’s Life, almost every one of their releases has been preceded by brief stand-alone stories that often serve as a proving ground for both technical experiments and young animators looking for a chance to direct.
Lava, which accompanies the release of Inside Out, is the newest Pixar short. To mark the release of both Lava and Inside Out, we’ve ranked the shorts from worst to best. (We’re excluding those that were just spin-offs of features and which mostly serve as extras for home-video release, like the Monsters Inc. riff Mike’s New Car or WALL-E sidequel BURN-E.) Take a look below to see how the shorts measure up. (Then you can download many of the films on YouTube, or watch them on the two Pixar Short Films Collection volumes on DVD and Blu-ray.)
16. Lava (2015, released with Inside Out)
Unfortunately Pixar’s newest short is one of their weakest. Following a lonely volcano as he sings of his desire to find love, director James Ford Murphy’s Hawaiian-themed film feels derivative, even calculated, in a way that most of these other shorts never do. It looks beautiful, but it comes across as whimsical without being particularly entertaining. (Watch a clip here.)
Watch a clip of ‘Red’s Dream:’
15. Red’s Dream (1987)
A lesser-known early work from Pixar and director John Lasseter (Toy Story, Toy Story 2), Red’s Dream is one of the few shorts never to have played with a theatrical feature. (We’re making an exception here, but as a key part of the studio’s development, it felt like it should be included in our list.) The story of an abandoned unicycle dreaming of a better life at a circus, it’s sweet enough, but feels a little more narratively slack than those that came before or after. It also suffers from a frankly disturbing CGI clown and a downbeat ending.
14. The Adventures Of André and Wally B (1984)
This 1984 film also might not pass muster to some as a true Pixar short: The story of a fez-wearing blue man and his new bee pal, came from the Lucasfilm Computer Graphics Project, the precursor to the studio that sprung out of work for George Lucas’ company. But given that the project brought together senior Pixar figures Ed Catmull and John Lasseter for the first time, we definitely felt like it was worth including. Breaking new ground at the time with the use of CGI animation, it’s undeniably simplistic and more a technical showcase than anything. But the germ of the company’s future greatness is already apparent. (Watch a clip here.)
Watch a clip from ‘The Blue Umbrella:’
13. The Blue Umbrella (2013, released with Monsters University)
The studio moved into a new level of photo-realism with the beautiful The Blue Umbrella, which anthropomorphizes various street objects around the story of two umbrellas — one blue, one red — that try to hook up their owners. For all its visual splendor, it struggled with comparisons to Disney’s similarly-themed, Oscar-winning Paper Man and feels more like a commercial for a dating website than something worthy of Pixar’s best.
12. For the Birds (2000, released with Monsters Inc.)
Still gorgeous 15 years later, For The Birds, from director Ralph Eggleston, is a stripped-down bullying allegory about a gang of round blue birds on a wire and the lanky object of their scorn. The characters are beautifully designed and the message admirable, but it’s a one-joke film and you see the joke coming from a mile away. (Watch a clip here.)
11. Tin Toy (1988)
Pixar landed on the cultural map with Tin Toy, which won the studio its first Oscar for Best Animated Short and was eventually selected for preservation in the Library of Congress. (It wasn’t widely seen until it was included on the VHS release of Toy Story.) Indeed, the film in many ways plays like a precursor to Toy Story, with its tale of a lifelike plaything pursued by a destructive baby. Tin Toy is easily the company’s most narratively satisfying film of their first few attempts, though as is usual with these early shorts, the limited technology makes the human character sort of horrifying. (Watch a clip here.)
10. Boundin’ (2003, released in theaters with The Incredibles)
Written, directed, and even sung by Pixar elder statesmen Bud Luckey, Boundin’ is the deeply silly story of a dancing sheep and the jackalope who helps him get his groove back after he’s shorn of his wool. With a good-natured, Will Rogers vibe, it’s impossible to dislike, even if it probably skews a little younger than many of these shorts. (Watch a clip here.)
9. Lifted (2006, released in theaters with Ratatouille)
Helmed by veteran sound designer Gary Nydstrom, Lifted focuses on a frog-like alien who’s ineptly attempting to lift a sleeping Earthling with a tractor beam under the stern eye of his gelatinous driving instructor. Mostly lit by the single beam of light from the spaceship, Lifted looks glorious and has a killer punch line, but it’s a little long and is overly reliant on its main visual gag. (Watch a clip here.)
Watch a clip from ‘Luxo Jr:’
8. Luxo Jr. (1986, released in theaters with 1999′s Toy Story 2)
Luxo Jr. is the first true short from the studio and the first directing credit for John Lasseter. It was first screened at computer graphics conference SIGGRAPH in the same year that Pixar was spun-off from Lucasfilm into a separate entity funded by Apple cofounder Steve Jobs. The tale of a parent-child lamp duo playing with a ball, it established the house style by giving inanimate objects real character, and though slight in narrative, has tons of charm. And of course, it lives on in the form of the studio’s logo.
7. Knick Knack (1989, released in theaters with 2003′s Finding Nemo)
Knick Knack sticks with the toy theme of Pixar’s early movies, and anticipates Frozen in its story of a snowman trying to escape his snow globe to reach an attractive sunbather. It’s got a different feel to many of the early short films: In the escalation of its comedy and well-constructed gags, it’s closer to Looney Tunes than to, say, Luxo Jr., and it’s all the better for it. (Watch a clip here.)
6. Day & Night (2010, released in theaters with Toy Story 3)
For the first time in Pixar history, the studio mixed traditional CGI animation with old-school 2D techniques: Day & Night sees cartoon personifications of, well, day and night, inside the silhouettes of which can be seen CGI scenes that change depending on the time of day. It’s a technical marvel, and has plenty of great jokes, though it’s not as narratively lean as some of the very best of the shorts and slightly outstays its welcome. (Watch a clip here.)
5. Geri’s Game (1997, released in theaters with A Bug’s Life)
The simple, but hugely effective short tells the story of an elderly man playing a very competitive game of chess against himself in the park. It marked the moment the company reached its holy grail of expressive human characters, and it deservedly won a Best Animated Short Oscar for director Jan Pinkava, who was the original director on Ratatouille before being replaced by Brad Bird. (Watch a clip here.)
4. One Man Band (2005, released in theaters with Cars)
With an old-school, European, fairy-tale vibe, One Man Band, from Pixar effects artist Andrew Jimenez and Brave helmer Mark Andrews, sees a humble multi-instrumentalist compete with a more sophisticated rival for a gold coin from an adorably sulky child. Driven by Michael Giacchino’s terrific score, this is one of the more all-around satisfying shorts the company ever made. (Watch a clip here.)
Watch a clip from ‘Presto:’
3. Presto (2008, released in theaters with WALL-E)
Revolving around the combative, but strangely touching relationship between a carrot-craving rabbit (one of Pixar’s cutest ever creations) and his quick-tempered magician, director Doug Sweetland’s Presto is an absolute delight. It mixes Looney Tunes slapstick with lovely golden-age-of-magic design so well that we’d have happily watched a whole feature about these two.
2. Partly Cloudy (2009, released in theaters with Up)
Pixar was at its peak in 2009, and director Peter Sohn’s Partly Cloudy contains the same mix of faultless storytelling, big laughs, and genuine pathos as the best of the studio’s features. A two-hander about a harassed stork and the cloud that gives him babies of some of nature’s least lovable creatures to deliver, it gives us great hope that Sohn’s upcoming feature debut The Good Dinosaur will be something special. (Watch a clip here.)
Watch a clip from ‘La Luna:’
1. La Luna (2011, released in theaters with Brave)
La Luna (watch above) follows three generations of an Italian family whose job it is to sweep shooting stars from the surface of the moon. Eschewing the slapstick laughs of earlier shorts in favor of an enchanting mood more reminiscent of Miyazaki and The Little Prince, it’s clearly a very personal project for director Enrico Casarosa and is still one of the most beautiful things Pixar has created…at any length.