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"Pixar Short Films Collection" Vol. 1: Fun, But Worth the Price?

Desk lamps with more character than everyone in 'Polar Express'They’re the appetizers before the main course or the desserts for the home-video audience. They’re trials for new techniques, new technology, and new filmmakers to stretch their muscles. They’re the often-imitated but never quite duplicated short films of Pixar Animation Studios, and now Walt Disney Home Entertainment has released their first collection of all of Pixar’s animated short films on DVD. Casual fans and hardcore animation nerds will find plenty on this disc to like, but whether this collection deserves a place on your DVD shelf isn’t such an easy call to make.

The Pixar Short Films Collection Volume 1 DVD is both entertaining and educational, since it neatly encapsulates the growth and development of Pixar Animation Studios on a number of levels. All of the short films released to theaters and home video are included with the exception of “Your Friend the Rat,” which is on the Ratatouille DVD. Just as with their theatrical releases, the shorts gauge how Pixar advanced the state of the art of computer animation over time. Although it looks crude to our eyes now, even “The Adventures of AndrĂ© and Wally B.” was groundbreaking in its day. The following short, “Luxo Jr.”, introduced the Pixar name and broke new ground in procedural animation, where computing power was used to relieve the animator of some of the animation grunt work, and in computer-generated lighting, with the first self-illuminating light source in CGI. The advances continue all through the shorts, from the credible human being and advanced clothing modeling in “Geri’s Game” to the feathers and fur of “For the Birds” and “Mike’s New Car.”

This short can still make me cry. In a totally manly way, of course.One thing that has not changed through the years is Pixar’s skill at character animation. Many of these shorts tell their stories without dialogue, carrying the narrative purely through the animated performances of the players with some occasional reinforcement through musical cues. Even if it’s showing its age, the famous “Luxo Jr.” short has lost none of its charm and appeal, lending tremendous character to its animated desk lamps. The atypically sad short “Red’s Dream” has a palpable sense of melancholy during its beginning and ending sequences, even though it’s lead character is a little red unicycle. Animation fans everywhere owe “Tin Toy” a debt of gratitude if only because it was a testing ground for many of the technology and the storytelling concepts behind Toy Story. “Knick Knack” expands on some of those same ideas and also proves to be much funnier.

One could make a credible case for calling John Lasseter a latter-day Walt Disney based on these early shorts alone, but that same skill at animated storytelling is in evidence no matter whose names pop up in the credits of these short films. The quiet humor of “Geri’s Game” is tempered with hints of the loneliness in the title character’s life. The folksy charm of “Boundin’” lets animation veteran Bud Luckey loose, and his moral with a slight Western twang proves he’s still got the touch. The manic “One Man Band” is reminiscent of the finest musical comedies of the Warner Brothers Termite Terrace. “Lifted,” the last short on this disc, lets its director Gary Rydstrom flex his sound-design muscles in the service of his own story with hilarious results, with one of the funniest gags working purely through sound over the end credits.

We'll beat Lightning McQueen in the Pixar Invitational THIS time!The short films also let us revisit our favorite characters from the films. “Mike’s New Car” doesn’t quite match up to the sublime brilliance of Monsters Inc., but it’s still an amusing bit of slapstick. “Jack-Jack Attack” serves to fill in some of the blanks of The Incredibles, mining two minor supporting characters for a few more laughs. “Mater and the Ghostlight” seems to be the most successful of these brand of shorts. It’s easily the most substantial of these three shorts in terms of telling a complete, self-contained story, although this may reflect Cars‘ relatively disappointing reception as much as the short’s own strengths.

Maybe he goes for the waif look nowHowever, in one way, watching the growth of Pixar through these shorts can be a bit of a bittersweet experience. While all the films are undeniably entertaining, something seems to get lost as the shorts grow in length and technical polish. It’s much easier to watch all these shorts in one sitting than Pixar’s movies, but in doing so, one can see a strange, crackling energy infused in the early shorts that seems missing from the later ones. Perhaps its a side-effect of the incredible growth and development of Pixar as a company. They started as a team of renegade programmers and animators blazing a trail through uncharted realms, but with the merger with Disney, Pixar has essentially become the Establishment and seems to have become a bit less daring in the process. The loss is perhaps best summed up in the unexplained breast reduction of the sunbather in “Knick Knack.” While the short still works without such a buxom heroine, it’s a bit hard to understand why the modification was made in the first place. For better or for worse, the bowdlerized “Knick Knack” now seems to be the official version, since it is the only one available on this DVD.

Those who already own the complete Pixar DVD library may rightfully ask whether this disc is worth owning when most of the content is available on other releases. Beyond the convenience factor, this disc presents some shorts on DVD for the first time, and presents others in proper widescreen transfers instead of the letterboxed full-frame presentation on older releases. In addition, all the shorts except for “Jack-Jack Attack” come with commentary tracks. Many of these commentaries are recycled from older releases, but some shorts (such as “Geri’s Game” and “One Man Band”) get commentary tracks for the first time on this disc. “Knick Knack” even gets a different commentary track than the one included on the Finding Nemo DVD. All of the commentaries are informative and worth listening to, with the possible exception of the rambling of the directors’ kids for “Mike’s New Car.”

Funniest. Pixar Short. Ever.The disc also has four “Luxo Jr.” shorts made for Sesame Street that demonstrate concepts like “Light and Heavy” and “Front and Back,” all of which are nearly as charming and funny as the original short. Finally, an informative featurette chronicles Pixar’s history in short films, borrowing some footage from Leslie Iwerks’ documentary The Pixar Story. There is also a DVD Easter Egg of “Luxo Jr.” rendered as a wireframe animation. Even the most rabid of Pixar completists will find something new and interesting on this disc.

Even with all these extras, many may still balk at paying $20 or more for a disc that has less than an hour’s worth of material. The anamorphic presentation, the commentary tracks, the bonus featurette, and the Sesame Street “Luxo Jr.” extras make the price tag a bit more palatable, but it still seems a bit steep. However, sales during the holiday season may make an easier price to swallow.

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