Pixar Animation Studio is often praised for its technical prowess, and for having a rigorous development process that leads to movies with better-crafted stories than most Hollywood blockbusters. But main Pixar honcho John Lasseter and his team are also big animation nerds; they’re students of their medium’s history, with an appreciation for the classics. Pixar’s feature films tend to be state-of-the-art technological marvels, but from the beginning, the studio has dedicated some of its resources to making short films that are more experimental and playful, influenced by the best of Looney Tunes, Disney, UPA, Aardman, and some of the more esoteric offerings from international animation festivals.
The first Pixar Short Films Collection DVD included some of the studio’s early work, which played those very festivals. Pixar Short Films Collection: Volume 2 reaches back even farther, digging up student films that Lasseter, Andrew Stanton (director of Finding Nemo and WALL-E), and Pete Docter (director of Monsters, Inc. and Up) made while in the character-animation program at CalArts. For Pixar fans and animation fans in general, this is a fascinating trip back to where the studio began, with shorts like Lasseter’s “Nitemare,” a remarkably polished pencil-test cartoon, telling a very Pixar-esque story about a boy who discovers that the monsters in his room are scared of him; and Stanton’s “Somewhere In The Arctic,” an Eskimo-vs.-bear chase that’s ostensibly just an excuse for Stanton to play around with vanishing points and perspective. There’s even one short in the student section that can stand with Pixar’s best work: Docter’s “Next Door,” a sweet, gorgeously designed, very Up-like sketch about an imaginative little girl and her cranky neighbor.
But those are just the extras on the second Pixar Short Films Collection. The main program brings together about an hour’s worth of the shorts that have played before Pixar features or have been tacked on to their home-video releases. Some of them, like the Cars and Toy Story shorts, are simple slapstick comedy, cashing in on the studio’s most popular characters. (Although the Toy Story short “Small Fry,” about the inferiority complexes of dinky kids-meal toys, is maybe the funniest sustained five minutes of film that Pixar has ever assembled.) Others are more ambitious, like “Your Friend The Rat,” an actual educational film about rodents through history, hosted by the Ratatouille characters; and “BURN-E,” which retells key moments from the climax of WALL-E from the perspective of another robot who’s inconvenienced by all the mayhem.
Nearly all of the cartoons in the main program of Pixar Short Films Collection: Volume 2 are already available on existing Pixar DVDs and Blu-rays, and not all of them are top-shelf. (There’s a reason why Pixar’s shorts don’t dominate the Oscars any more.) But given what a major part of the Pixar legacy its shorts have been, it’s always a pleasure to see a big chunk of them in one place, and to enjoy the range of a studio that can make something as weird and beautiful as the moon-farming short “La Luna” and as wild and soulful as the mixed-media wonder “Day And Night.” For all the nuanced, richly realized movies that Pixar has made, it’s reassuring to know that its stewards are still interested in making shorts as well-honed and hilarious as “Presto,” a magician-vs.-rabbit gag-fest as classic as the cartoons that made Lasseter and company want to be animators in the first place.
Key features: Commentary tracks on all the shorts, and creator introductions for the aforementioned student work.