Disney // 1984 // 54 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Chief Justice Michael Stailey // February 2nd, 2008
Who ever said the animated short was a dead medium?
In mid-December, Melissa and I had the pleasure of attending a screening for The Pixar Story, a compelling documentary by Leslie Iwerks, granddaughter of Walt Disney's original animation partner and collaborator, Ub Iwerks. Two weeks later, in a completely unrelated event, my brother gave me a copy of To Infinity and Beyond: The Story of Pixar Animation Studios for Christmas. To say I'm an animation fan, would be an understatement, which is why I was so looking forward to reviewing the Pixar Short Films Collection: Volume 1. Having seen all of these shorts years before in various forms and places, it wasn't so much subject matter that intrigued me, but the stories behind them. And what fascinating stories they are.
John Lasseter was enthralled by animation at very young age. Following his graduation from Cal Arts, a school and animation program created by Walt Disney himself, John not surprisingly went to work for the House of Mouse. But he was a man ahead of his time, and the limited vision of Disney brass at the time has no interest in an animator whose interests and 3D pursuits exceeded their own. As fate would have it (as fate often does), John crossed paths with computer whiz Ed Catmull and the spark of a new venture was born. While the road to where Pixar is today was long and fraught with peril, the creativity generated by this small band of like-minded individuals has given us some of the most engaging and beautifully conceived stories in cinematic history -- Toy Story, A Bug's Life, Monsters, Inc., Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Cars, Ratatouille. And yet the path to these features was paved by equally compelling shorts who humor and emotion stands the test of time, as evidenced by this collection.
The Adventures of André and Wally B (1984)
Created while Ed, John, and the original Pixar crew were working for LucasFilm's Computer Division. The short was meant to wow the audience at SIGGRAPH -- the computer industry's annual event to honor and celebrate advancements in graphics and interactive design -- and wow them they did, despite the fact that the film wasn't even finished yet. You can already see the trademark Pixar richness of detail evidenced in Bill Reeves backgrounds for this brief tale of animated man versus nature. It's a one note gag, but moved the medium light years forward. Written by Alvy Ray Smith, with models and animation by John, Ed, Alvy, Tom Duff, and David Salesin.
Despite their initial success, the Computer Division was on the chopping block. Ed and Alvy, refusing to let this dream die, put together a business plan in an attempt to draw investors and spin Pixar off on its own. Enter Steve Jobs, oh he of Apple Computer fame and fortune, who on Feb 5, 1986 bought Pixar from LucasFilm for the small sum of $10 Million -- $5 Million in cash and $5 Million in bankroll funding for the upstart dream team.
Luxo, Jr. (1986)
Looking to advance 3D animation even further, John wrote and directed a fully animated short film for SIGGRAPH '86, not just another test piece like their peers were showcasing. With the tireless work of Don Conway, Paul Heckbert, Sam Leffler, Bill Reeves, Gary Rydstrom, Craig Good, and software whiz Eben Ostby, them team brought to life an emotional tale of a father and son who just happen to be lamps. Talk about blowing the doors off the place, Pixar had just become a force unlike any other. The short went on to be nominated for an Academy Award, a first for computer animation.
Red's Dream (1987)
Having already set the bar extremely high, how do you top it? Well, for SIGGRAPH '87, the boys invested a healthy amount of pathos (a Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston staple) into this rich, atmospheric tale of a unicycle who wants to be a circus star. What's more, they moved beyond rendering inanimate objects and for the first time attempted a human figure -- a clown. Rudimentary at best, this was the jumping off point for much bigger things. Once again, John wrote and directed, while Bill and Eben crafted an amazingly detailed set, complete with cameos by André (on the clock face) and Luxo. The noirish opening title sequence alone is award worthy.
Tin Toy (1988)
With pressure to outdo themselves once again, SIGGRAPH '88 saw the first fully rendered 3D human in the form of one scary looking baby. Inspired by John's observation of his infant nephew at play, Tin Toy lays the groundwork for what would eventually become Pixar's first feature film Toy Story. You feel the emotional shift of this little toy, from the pride of entertaining a child, to the frustration of being abandoned for the bag in which he arrived, to sheer terror when the child wants to mangle its fragile tin frame. This fantastic piece took home the Oscar for best animated short that year, establishing computer generated animation as a viable entertainment art form.
Knick Knack (1989)
With the heavy lifting out of the way, it was now time to start having fun. Drawing inspiration from animation legends such as Tex Avery, Chuck Jones, and Friz Freleng, John and his team pulled out all the stops in creating this zany tale of a snowglobe snowman looking to expand his horizons. More adult in nature than previous shorts, the film has sadly undergone Disney political correctness revamping, with no more large, bare, mermaid breasts to be found. Changes aside, it's still a highlight of the Shorts Collection with a brilliant underscore by Bobby McFerrin.
While it may have been a hayday period for Pixar, these short films never made money. They were showpieces for a company that was supposed to be selling powerful hardware and software applications. It's hard to pay the bills with accolades and well wishes. To ease the pressure, Pixar began doing a lot of commercial work, as well as donating their time and energy in creating several Luxo Jr. shorts for Sesame Street. Disney has graciously included these pieces as bonus features, making this an even more valuable Pixar filmography collection. The increased work meant they needed more help, so John went back to Cal Arts and hired two promising young animators, neither of whom knew their way around a computer: Andrew Stanton (who would go on to direct Finding Nemo) and Pete Docter (who would later helm Monsters, Inc.).
But with success, also comes change. John was wooed several times by Disney to return to the fold as a director. For as enticing as the offer was, something was holding him back. All the nights spent sleeping under his desk while sharing computer time with his cohorts. All the energy and teamwork that had gone into not only creating an impressive array of work, but also establishing a brand new art form the surface of which had barely been scratched. That's not something you can easily walk away from. But John wanted more for Pixar, so they began moving towards the creation of a full-length cg-animated feature film, yet another first of its kind.
Their first attempt was to secure the rights to Roald Dahl's "James and the Giant Peach." When Dahl turned them down, they shifted the company focus back to commericals. That is, until Disney came knocking once again. With the success of The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast, the company had pulled out of its tailspin and was once again riding high as the reigning animation king of Hollywood. This afforded them the opportunity to push their own boundaries, offering Tim Burton the opportunity to create The Nightmare Before Christmas as a stop-motion animated film, and Pixar the chance to choose its own subject matter for what would become Disney's first foray into cg-feature animation. With a three-picture deal in hand, they went to work on Toy Story.
However, the collective wisdom of John and Ed's team never forsake their animated short roots. They took a break, but came back to it stronger than ever. After all, this was a test bed for new concepts, new technologies, and the perfect breeding ground for new talent. So while John continued to drive feature development, another part of the team kept the shorts flame burning brightly.
Gerri's Game (1997)
Director Jan Pinkava (the original driving force behind Ratatouille) drew inspiration from his maternal grandfather's love of chess for this wonderful piece. The film pushed the boundaries for Pixar, as the sole character involved was human. They had come a long from the creepy baby in Tin Toy, but used very little human work in Toy Story and none at all in A Bug's Life. While definitely stylized, Gerri's twin personalities are exceptionally delivered with full emotional range. The expressiveness of his eyes, mouth, and hands make this intimate piece shine as much today as when it was first shown. The one mistake they made with the film was the missing box of chess pieces in the final long shot, and Pinkava cops to the fact that people still point it out to him.
For the Birds (2000)
When John opened up the shorts development to anyone in the company with a good idea, many stepped up. First was Ralph Eggleston, who joined Pixar in 1993 to oversee the art design on Toy Story. Birds was an unfinished project from his CalArts days, abandoned when he couldn't come up with a satisfiable ending or an effective way to animate all of the birds. While yet another comedic piece, in the vein of Knick Knack, this presented two technological challenges: animating feathers, and a continuously active background -- the rolling wheat field. They accomplished both in what would be the last project to come out of Pixar's Point Richmond studio.
Mike's New Car (2002)
Disney was now making a fortune off the Pixar brand and, with each new DVD release, they wanted special content fans could not get anywhere else. So, Pete Docter and Roger Gould created a mini-adventure for Mike and Sully. Nothing ground breaking here, but a fun romp and more opportunity for Billy Crystal, John Goodman, and the animation team to strut their stuff. The commentary on this one was recorded by Pete and Roger's sons; very cute.
The companion winner to John's open studio pitch session was this gem from Montana native and CalArts grad Bud Luckey. Written, directed, composed, and narrated by this animation renaissance man, Boundin' tells the musical, cautionary tale of a young, proud sheep who mistakenly abandons his sense of self when his wool is stolen. Bud drew upon his own personal history, the work he had done on Sesame Street, and the imagery of Grant Wood and Mary Blair to create this luscious western landscape populated with spirited creatures. Cameos from Pixar feature characters include the fish in the pond and the man (a Dentist) who snatches and shears Lucky (both from Finding Nemo) while driving the Model-T from Cars.
Jack-Jack Attack (2005)
More direct-to-DVD content, however this one plays like a deleted scene from The Incredibles rather than an original short. It's what happened off-screen to Jack-Jack and his babysitter Kari, while the Parrs were off saving the city from Syndrome's sentient robot. Extremely funny and well done, it's the only one of the shorts without a commentary track.
One-Man Band (2005)
The brainchild of story supervisor Mark Andrews and animator Andy Jimenez, this was the third of three ideas they pitched to John for short development. Together with composer Michael Giacchino (Ratatouille), they wove a wonderous tale of competitive spirit gone awry, only to be schooled by the talent and wisdom of a child. Band should be viewed especially for its use of independent camera movement and the mind-blowing level of detail infused into its Renaissance setting.
Mater and the Ghost Light (2006)
Yet another direct-to-DVD entry, but one as lovingly crafted as John's feature-length triumph, Cars, from which it was inspired. This untold tale from Radiator Springs shows the gang getting a wee-bit of revenge on everyone's favorite prankster. During the commentary, John points out the inspiration for Mater came from Don Knotts, and that's clearly evident in this Ghost and Mr. Chicken-esque escapade. Even if Cars wasn't your bag, you have to marvel at the world Pixar has created with this film.
The final short ran in front of Ratatouille and servers as a comedic homage to the days of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, when alien abductions were all the In Search Of rage. Here we find an alien abducter trainee trying to get ahold of the ship's overwhelming console. Pure comedy from start to finish...and beautiful looking at that.
Presented in a mix of full frame (for the older, SIGGRAPH shorts) to 1.78:1 native widescreen, these images blaze new trails in 1080p Blu-ray. You will find detail here that was impossible to see in theatres or on your computer screen, which is where many folks first encountered those early shorts; unless you were a fan of Spike and Mike's Twisted Animation Festival which made the art house and college campus rounds in the '90s. The audio, as always with Blu-ray, is astounding and showcases the unsung sound design work that Pixar embeds in their features.
I mentioned the audio commentaries (save for Jack-Jack) and the Sesame Street clips, but the single most valuable bonus feature included on this release is "The Pixar Shorts: A Short Story." For those who have not seen Leslie's The Pixar Story, it's a Readers Digest version of their history, but a well crafted, fascinating tale of tragedy and triumph.
I've read other reviewers and consumers who claim that this collection is nothing more than Disney's attempt to milk Pixar fans for even more of their hard-earned dollars. I disagree. While you may be able to find these shorts online, on VHS, or included on other Pixar special edition releases, having them all in one collection, supported by a great documentary, showcases the amazing journey that this company and its people have undertaken. It's a story that needed to be told and one that everyone should hear, as it proves what you can accomplish when you whole-heartedly pursue your dreams...to infinity and beyond.
Review content copyright © 2008 Michael Stailey; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p Widescreen)
* Full Frame (1080p)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Master Lossless Audio (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Master Lossless Audio (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 54 Minutes
Release Year: 1984
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* "The Pixar Shorts: A Short History"
* Audio Commentaries on all but "Jack-Jack Attack"
* Luxo Jr. Sesame Street Shorts: Surprise, Light & Heavy, Up & Down, Front & Back
* IMDb: The Adventures of Andre and Wally B.
* IMDb: Luxo Jr.
* IMDb: Red's Dream
* IMDb: Tin Toy
* IMDb: Knick Knack
* IMDb: Luxo Jr. in "Surprise" and "Light & Heavy"
* IMDb: Gerri's Game
* IMDb: For the Birds
* IMDb: Mike's New Car
* IMDb: Boundin'
* IMDb: Jack-Jack Attack
* IMDb: One Man Band
* IMDb: Mater and the Ghost Light
* IMDb: Lifted
* Pixar Shorts: Official Site
* "Knick Knack" downsizing controversy
* Original DVD Verdict Review