As Toy Story director John Lasseter tells it, his first CGI short, 1984's primitive character interaction "The Adventures Of André & Wally B.," bowled over a technically focused industry that had never seen narrative applied to computer animation before: One enthusiastic viewer at a computer conference asked what software he had used to make it so funny. It was a prophetic question: Since 1986, when Steve Jobs bought Lucasfilm's computer division and launched it as a hardware development and sales outfit called Pixar, people have been crediting the company's success to innovative CGI, while often glossing over the solid storytelling and heart that made films like Toy Story, Finding Nemo, and The Incredibles special.
While the DVD retrospective Pixar Short Films Collection does display the stunning progress Pixar has made in turning CGI into a rich artistic medium, it also showcases that heart, which reaches even into the shorts that were only made as software proofs-of-concept. In an informative, touching 23-minute pocket history of Pixar, Lasseter describes these shorts as one percent of Pixar's early expenditures, and 99 percent of its visibility. A Disney vet hired to handle character designs for "André," Lasseter brought an old-school sense of storytelling into pieces like "Luxo Jr.," "Red's Dream," the Oscar-winning "Tin Toy," and "Knick Knack," all of which feature inanimate objects—a lamp, a unicycle, and a bunch of toys—exhibiting emotions like joy, sorrow, frustration, and excitement, mostly in their movements. A Chuck Jones-like sense of comic timing certainly helped.
The featurette delves deeply into the history and planning of those first shorts, then skims across the other eight presented on the disk. Some were created as DVD bonuses for Pixar features, and use the characters from those films: "Mike's New Car" for Monsters, Inc.; "Jack-Jack Attack" for The Incredibles; "Mater And The Ghostlight" for Cars. The other five ("Geri's Game," "For The Birds," "Boundin'," "One Man Band," and "Lifted") played before Pixar films in theaters, and let new directors explore the medium. Some of the DVD's contents are more technically accomplished than others—"One Man Band"'s fluid complexity makes "Tin Toy" look clumsy and hideous—but from a narrative standpoint, Pixar's output is as full of clever craft and big laughs as a Looney Tunes collection, from the crude old days to the shiny new ones.
Key features: The featurette, several brief bumpers created for Sesame Street, and commentaries on every short but "Jack-Jack Attack," by the directors, or in one case, their kids.