Pixar Short Films Collection Vol.1 Review
The computer-generated wizardry of Pixar has all but saved Disney animation for the past decade or more since the company's initial feature Toy Story was released in 1995. But it was eleven years earlier that John Lasseter, the California-based face of Pixar and current chief creative officer of Walt Disney Animation Studios, made his first short film using three-dimensional computer animation. That charming little short, The Adventures of André and Wally B., was actually produced for Lucasfilm and now joins twelve others on the new R1 Disney DVD Pixar Short Films Collection, optimistically given a Volume 1 signifier. Below, I've taken a look at each short chronologically, using the years assigned on this DVD.
The Adventures of André & Wally B. (1:51)
As mentioned above, the first of these shorts pre-dates the creation of Pixar and was actually made for Lucasfilms. It's a cute start that promises much bigger things to come. Completed in 1984, it features the two geometrically shaped title characters, a human-like android creature and a bee, playing around outdoors. This initial effort is presented in its original 1.33:1 full frame aspect ratio and with Dolby Digital 2.0 audio, the only one of the shorts not in DD 5.1. The animation itself is comparatively primitive, similar to the Pixar knock-offs that find their way as direct-to-video imitations when the company releases a new feature.
The first five shorts all feature new commentary from Pixar principals John Lasseter, Eben Ostby, and Bill Reeves. They're informative and entertaining, unquestionably worth listening to given the brief running times. These early shorts also all appeared previously on VHS as Tiny Toy Stories, but this is the DVD debut for two of the five. Understandably, the DVD image quality increases with the advances in animation and the initial works are slightly inferior to the later ones. If you look very closely, a speck of dirt might be visible here and there, but it's not worth splitting hairs over.
Luxo Jr. (2:10)
The official birth of Pixar animation was with this Oscar-nominated 1986 short about two Luxo brand lamps, given a parent-child relationship here. The smaller one plays a little too rough with a ball as the parent looks on. It's enhanced for widescreen televisions at 1.78:1, but pillarboxed on the sides to make up for the 1.56:1 aspect ratio of the short, and is in Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. The Luxo lamps have become a symbol of Pixar and Luxo Jr. occupies the second letter of the company's established logo. Here, the opening logo is completely different and would continue to evolve and change over the next few shorts. On the disc, Lasseter, Ostby, and Reeves continue to provide optional commentary, exclusive to this release. Luxo Jr. played theatrically with Toy Story 2 in 1999, and was previously included with that film's inital DVD release in the "Ultimate Toy Box" set.
Red's Dream (4:13)
An early Pixar triumph from 1987. A rainy night peek into a bike shop finds a lonely unicycle dreaming about juggling and a circus clown, set to a very atmospheric jazz score. The animation continues to take great leaps forward and the storytelling here foreshadows the multi-layered humanity that has set Pixar apart from its frequently soulless imitators. Somewhat downbeat, but more affecting as a result. The DD 5.1 audio is a noticeable improvement on the two earlier shorts and the often black background looks good, though maybe not as rich as something made more recently. The aspect ratio is 1.78:1, enhanced for widescreen televisions, but the short is letterboxed to accommodate its 1.92:1 presentation. Red's Dream has never been attached to a Pixar film in the cinemas and this is its first time on DVD. Commentary by Lasseter, Ostby, and Reeves. Watch for cameos by André and Luxo.
Tin Toy (5:10)
An obvious precursor to Toy Story, this 1988 short is about a little tin one-man band toy who initally runs from his infant owner and then tries to win back the baby's attention. It was the first real attempt at creating a human by Pixar and the results are a little mixed. The drooling baby is, let's say, a tad unattractive, but you can still see how revolutionary it must have looked at the time. Tinny, the title character, is very impressively rendered and looks quite lifelike. Look quick for another Luxo Jr. cameo.
Pixar won the Best Animated Short Film Academy Award for its efforts here. Disney included the short, appropriately, on the VHS and "Toy Box" DVD editions of Toy Story, but the commentary here by Lasseter, Ostby, and Reeves is new. Again, these early shorts lack the razor sharp image of the features, but the 1.78:1 video and DD 5.1 audio give no reason to complain.
Knick Knack (3:35)
Sort of an exhale, but a very fun one. From 1989, we have a Chuck Jones-inspired short about a determined snowman eager to escape his snow globe and join the sunnier souvenirs, including a bikini-clad female. His varied and unexpected attempts at breaking out are reminiscent of Wile E. Coyote. It's light and cartoony and maybe the funniest of the shorts. The score by Bobby McFerrin is another nice touch.
Knick Knack was previously released before Finding Nemo theatrically and on that film's DVD. That version was slightly altered from the original to significantly reduce the chest size of the bikini girl and the mermaid and is the same one on this disc. A 2003 intro explains the short's origin by placing it pre-Toy Story on the Pixar timeline, but doesn't mention the re-rendering. The new commentary from Lasseter, Ostby, and Reeves skips over this change as well. Aspect ratio is 1.78:1.
Geri's Game (4:51)
Pixar's 1998 return to short films in the post-Toy Story era shines as one its most successful, fully-rounded pieces. An elderly man entertains himself on an autumn day by challenging his cockier, sprightlier alter ego to a game of outdoor chess. Pretending to be in a fierce competition, the two Geris are separated by a pair of glasses and wildly different attitudes. Geri's Game shows a supreme advancement in Pixar's depiction of humans and still looks mighty impressive, especially the fabric on Geri's jacket. Geri would later make a cameo in Toy Story 2.
Writer and director Jan Pinkava provides an audio commentary on his Academy Award-winning short and, while maybe not as interesting as the Pixar trio's commentaries, it's still a worthwhile listen. Geri's Game premiered theatrically with A Bug's Life and is also on that film's Collector's Edition DVD. The Pinkava commentary is new for this release, I believe, and, unlike the previous DVD version, the 1.66:1 video is enhanced for widescreen televisions here.
For the Birds (3:23)
Another short, another Academy Award. For the Birds, from 2001, is a bit more wacky and Tex Avery-like than the others in this set. A large bird tries to befriend a group of smaller birds perched on a wire. The little birds are snobby and reject the goofy and awkward newcomer, but, ultimately, get their comeuppance. Maybe not as substantial as some of the other short films Pixar's made, but it's still pretty good and has its moments. Writer/director Ralph Eggleston provides commentary on his work, which was shown theatrically with Monsters, Inc. and is on that film's DVD with the same commentary track. Video quality from here through the remaining shorts is mostly exceptional, on par with the magnificent images viewers have come to expect from the Pixar DVDs. For the Birds is presented in 1.78:1 aspect ratio and enhanced for widescreen sets. The only minor quibble with this transfer is a brief instance of combing, but it's barely noticeable, if at all. Oddly, this combing isn't present on the version found on the Monsters, Inc. disc.
Mike's New Car (3:48)
The 2001 hit feature Monsters, Inc. spawned a short starring the two main characters, James P. "Sulley" Sullivan and Mike Wazowski for its DVD release. John Goodman and Billy Crystal return, respectively, as Sulley and Mike when the latter character gets a shiny new six-wheel drive sports car and ask his buddy if he wants to go out for a spin. Things go predictably haywire and hilarity ensues. Actually, it is pretty funny, but, like the other two shorts that utilize feature characters, this feels out of place on the new DVD. They work much better on their own individual releases, but, then again, I can't fault Disney for including them here because they'd have a number of people complaining if they were absent.
Carried over from the Monsters, Inc. disc is the commentary on Mike's New Car by the young sons of directors Pete Docter and Roger Gould. Some people may find this cute, particularly the kids' parents, but I thought it was a little disappointing and would have much rather heard from the directors themselves, or even Goodman and Crystal. The aspect ratio is 1.33:1 and the transfer looks perfect. In a reversal of the situation with For the Birds, the combing that can be seen in the release of this short found on the Monsters, Inc. DVD is not present here.
This is an odd little cartoon written, directed and narrated by Bud Luckey. Set amid a desertlike background, a woolly sheep takes great joy from his high-step dancing and entertains his fellow creatures until one day he's sheared. Saddened by his newly bare coat, the sheep is laughed at until a jackalope comes bounding along to cheer him up. It's unique among the regular Pixar shorts in that there are vocals, all courtesy of Luckey. The title song is maybe a bit too infectious and just might pound, pound, pound in your head longer than you'd like. Boundin' was shown in theatres with The Incredibles and is included on that film's DVD as well, with the same commentary from Luckey as on this disc and in 1.78:1 aspect ratio.
Jack-Jack Attack (4:45)
Using characters from his film The Incredibles, Brad Bird wrote and directed a sort of extension to that film, about what babysitter Kari was dealing with during her time with baby Jack-Jack Parr while his parents and siblings were saving the world. The story is being told by Kari to her interrogator, Agent Dicker. As with Mike's New Car, I think Jack-Jack Attack gets laughs, but it really plays better with its film than as a standalone short. The magical little worlds created in the other Pixar shorts make for self-contained enjoyment that just isn't there in these feature film spin-offs. The short debuted on the DVD for The Incredibles and is presented in 1.78:1 on both releases. Of note, this is the only short in the collection that doesn't contain a commentary.
One Man Band (4:31)
Here we have an exquisite piece of animation written and directed by Andrew Jimenez and Mark Andrews, about a one-man band street performer who tries to win over a little girl holding a coin only to find out he has competition from a more elegant performer. The duel of the one-man band performers is accentuated brilliantly by Michael Giacchino's score. Giacchino, who also did the score for The Incredibles and the television shows Alias and Lost, among others, joins Jimenez and Andrews for an enlightening commentary track that seems to be exclusive to this release. One Man Band played with the Pixar film Cars in cinemas and is also included on its DVD. This wordless gem is presented in anamorphic widescreen, at its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio.
Mater and the Ghostlight (7:08)
An original short produced for the 2006 Cars DVD and using that film's characters, Mater and the Ghostlight was directed by John Lasseter and runs about two minutes longer than any of the others in the Pixar Short Films Collection. In this mini-film, Mater the tow truck plays practical jokes on the various denizens of the Cars world, but then becomes scared himself when told the story of the spooky ghostlight. I found this the least impressive of the shorts, an observation partly due to the extended running time and the feeling that this seems like an excerpt more than a standalone entity. Yet, if you really enjoyed Cars then you're more likely to also enjoy this follow-up (though you'd also probably already own it on DVD). Lasseter and co-director Dan Scanlon provide commentary exclusive to this disc. The aspect ratio is maintained at 1.78:1.
Getting back to doing what they do best, Pixar crafted a new short that played theatrically before Ratatouille this past summer. Lifted, also included on the new Ratatouille DVD and in 1.78:1, is a science fiction homage about a couple of gelatinous aliens practising their abduction skills. The smaller one is at the controls, a teenager taking his version of a driver's test as the larger one looks on in judgment. The student has a tough go during this certification process, banging his abductee victim repeatedly against walls and branches, but somehow never waking him. It's inspired slapstick and a worthy addition to the Pixar catalog. Pay attention for a quick cameo by Tin Toy's Tinny.
Writer and director Gary Rydstrom provides a solo commentary included only on this release and not the Ratatouille DVD. The other short from the Ratatouille disc, Your Friend the Rat, is noticeably absent here - a shrewd, but not particularly customer-friendly choice.
Extras and Quality Control
Aside from the optional commentaries on each short save for Jack-Jack Attack, the meatiest supplement on the Pixar Short Films Collection DVD is "The Pixar Shorts: A Short History." Presented in anamorphic 1.85:1 widescreen (though interlaced and with visible combing), it runs 23:33 and provides an informative and entertaining overview of the company's history prior to the success of Toy Story. Thankfully without going over the head of the less technologically inclined, this featurette gives a good background of the animation studio's humble beginnings and consistent dedication to its work. By stopping at Toy Story, the viewer is also saved from hearing things most likely already known and repetitive self-congratulations are avoided. Some information is repeated from the commentaries, but there's still enough to go around.
The remaining special features are very brief and of milder interest. Four Sesame Street bits are included, each starring the Luxo lamps and running less than a minute apiece. There are also three Easter Eggs. On the audio setup menu page, press the arrow to the right while positioned on the English option and a red American flag will be highlighted. This takes us to a 1986 creation from Bill Reeves called Flags and Water that runs a mere 14 seconds. Another hidden bonus can be found on the subtitles page by moving the arrow up while on the English hard of hearing option, highlighting a beach chair. Running 19 seconds, Beach Chair is a 1986 brief piece of animation by Eben Ostby. Finally, a 1986 pencil test for Luxo Jr. can be found on the shorts main page by highlighting Boundin' and pressing the arrow down to reveal a Luxo outline. It lasts just over two minutes.
A promotional advertisement for Blu-Ray and trailers for Wall-E, Return to Never Land, The Santa Clause 3 and Ratatouille play automatically when the disc is inserted, but are not accessible from the menu. The case includes an outer, embossed slipcover and, inside the packaging, there's a chapter listing insert and another for Disney Movie Rewards.
The transfers on this dual-layered NTSC disc are very strong, with the more recent, post-Toy Story shorts understandably looking sharper and more vivid. The five earlier shorts still look good though, especially when compared with the rougher-looking clips shown in the featurette. The only curious, if minor, flaw I noticed was the aforementioned combing (pictured above in a cropped screenshot) in For the Birds. Aspect ratios vary from 1.33:1 to 2.39:1 and are enhanced for widescreen televisions when applicable. The majority of the recent shorts are presented in 1.78:1, the aspect ratio most natural to widescreen televisions. I've included specific information about each short's aspect ratio in the write-ups above.
As touched on earlier, each short is presented with Dolby Digital 5.1 audio except The Adventures of André & Wally B., which is in Dolby Digital 2.0. Crisp and clear, the audio is just what you'd expect. Some shorts make more obvious use of surround sound capabilities than others, but none are going to rock your sound system. Audio is also available in French and Spanish if selected from the menu, but not during playback. English for the hearing impaired, French and Spanish subtitles are accessible only from the menu. Japanese subtitles and audio are on the disc also, and can be accessed if played on a computer. Commentaries are subtitled for each language option, but, again, have to be turned on at the menu phase.
This is where I rail against how poor of a value this DVD is. Eleven of these thirteen short films have been released on DVD previously, though two of those are on discs currently out of print. Thus, many of these will most likely already be owned by the target consumer base. Overall, the featured content here lasts under an hour. Extras are good, as is the quality, but a couple of commentaries are repeated from earlier releases and one short is missing a commentary. In addition, Knick Knack is the re-rendered version (why not include both, at least as another Easter Egg?). Still, the shorts included are high points in modern animation and packaged with enough care to make those on the fence probably pick the disc up. It's just a minor shame that consumers will have to pony up the same price they would for a full-length feature loaded with special features. Unless you have to have the supplements and the shorts missing from other DVD releases, Pixar Short Films Collection Volume 1 adds up to a great release that's disappointingly unnecessary and overpriced for most Pixar fans.