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Review: "Pixar Short Films Collection Vol. 2" - More Little Gifts from Planet Pixar

Way back in 2007, when I reviewed the Pixar Short Films Collection Vol. 1, our own staffer Duke asked:

“Does Pixar even have enough short films for a second volume? Or will that second volume come out in 2011?”

Duke, wherever you are, you were only off by a year. The second collection of Pixar short films is now available in a Blu-ray/DVD combo pack, presenting a dozen more of Pixar’s short films. Just as with the first set, this second one is interesting as both art and as history, and just as with the first disc, all of these shorts get commentary tracks (which don’t usually accompany the DVD/Blu-ray releases of the movies). There isn’t quite the same sense of watching the field of CGI advance in fast-motion as on the first set, since the technical improvements now aren’t as visible, but many of these shorts allowed Pixar to try new things. Others linked to the studio’s major franchises also keep the bread buttered while being fine, entertaining work in their own right.

The dozen shorts on the set are:

“Your Friend the Rat”: This short accompanied the Ratatouille home video release, and fakes a Disney educational film from the 50′s. It’s narrated by Remy and Emile, chronicling the history of rats and humans in a humorous but surprisingly educational way. This short contained Pixar’s first hand-drawn animated work, and I love how the art style changes to mirror the art of the time period that Remy and Emile are talking about. It’s the kind of trick that’s relatively easy to do in hand-drawn animation and too costly to be practical in CGI.

“Presto”: Released theatrically with WALL-E, this Oscar-nominated short is one of my favorites from Pixar for its loopy, Looney Tunes-inspired sense of humor that’s leavened by just enough sweetness at the end. When a magician forgets to feed his rabbit before leaping out on stage, his magic hats turn out to be his undoing as the rabbit refuses to play along. Like many of Pixar’s shorts, this short contains no dialogue, and succeeds in communicating everything it needs through characters’ body language and the hilariously exaggerated, cartoony pratfalls.

“BURN-E”: This expansion on the story of WALL-E was released with that movie on home video. It’s pretty much built off one throwaway scene in the movie as WALL-E waves to a worker bot on the side of the Axiom, and details how BURN-E’s life is made immeasurably harder by events of the movie. It’s another hilarious short that compares quite favorably to the best of the Looney Tunes.

“Partly Cloudy”: I always liked but did not love this short, which was released theatrically with Up. It explains where babies come from by showing clouds making them for storks to deliver them. One hapless stork ends up getting the sharp, toothy, aggressive, or otherwise dangerous ones. This was a case where the commentary track made me appreciate the short more, as director Pete Sohn reveals some surprisingly personal inspirations for it. The ending seems even sweeter and more heartfelt now.

“Dug’s Special Mission”: Accompanying the home video of Up, this short gives us more Dug the dog, which is awesome, because he has only just met you and he loves you. Everybody loves Dug. Who doesn’t love Dug? Commies, that’s who. And probably cat people. Neither of whom should be trusted. Like “BURN-E,” this short expands a bit on events from the movie, showing what Dug was up to before he met Carl and Russell: mostly causing unintentional but funny havoc for Alpha and his cronies.

“George and A.J.”: I believe this short was only released on YouTube to accompany Up. The title characters are the two nurses from the Shady Oaks Retirement Village who try to pick up Carl Fredricksen near the beginning of Up, and this short follows them around town as other senior citizens are inspired by Carl and begin staging their own escapes. It’s preposterous and very, very funny. It’s also animated entirely in After Effects (think “Flash”), so it’s definitely not as polished as the other shorts. This short has easily the funniest commentary track, so if you will only listen to one, make it this one.

“Day & Night”: I’m afraid I admire this short (which accompanied Toy Story 3 in theaters) more than I really like it. It’s a simple short as the two title characters meet, come to loggerheads, and then learn to appreciate each other, and I think my major problem with it is how it decides it needs to hammer home its theme by embedding a clip from a speech by Dr. Wayne Dyer near the end. It gets full marks for thematic ambition and I do love the hand-drawn/CGI mixture (which was apparently really, really hard to do).

“Toy Story Toons: Hawaiian Vacation”: I’m one of the few who didn’t really like Toy Story 3, and one of the reasons why is that the big teary goodbye scene at the end rang false to me. Sure, I cried a little bit (in a manly, manly way) during that scene, but a little niggling voice in the back of my head kept saying, “But Disney won’t let us REALLY say goodbye to these guys! Not when there’s toys to be sold and re-runs to air on TV and DVDs to sell.” And, as it turns out, short films to make. We won’t say goodbye to Woody, Buzz, and the gang any more than we’ve been able to say goodbye to Mickey Mouse, who’s well into his 80s.

I am totally not complaining about that, by the way. The best thing about Toy Story 3 was that we did get to hang out again with Woody, Buzz, Hamm, Jessie, and everyone else, and this first “Toy Story Toon” is nearly as funny and irreverent as the first Toy Story movie. The gang have to find a way to cheer up Ken, since Bonnie has left for vacation without her toys and Ken was set on going to Hawaii. It presents a number of creative and funny toy-scaled solutions to problems, and the talented cast pulls off all the jokes beautifully.

“Cars Toons: Air Mater”: I also go against the grain for liking both Cars movies, and I really like the “Mater’s Tall Tales” series of shorts for their outlandish sense of humor. “Air Mater” isn’t the best of those shorts, and it’s also a backhanded-commercial for the Planes direct-to-video movies coming soon from Pixar Canada, but this short is still amusing enough. The flying sequences are brilliantly done, and mean that Planes will at least look fabulous.

“Toy Story Toons: Small Fry”: Even better than “Hawaiian Vacation,” this “Toy Story Toon” follows a kid’s meal Buzz Lightyear toy as he swaps places with Bonnie’s Buzz Lightyear in an effort to get some playtime. The real Buzz’s escape is hindered when he falls into a support group for abandoned kid’s meal toys, all of whom are screamingly, hilariously awful. Again, the same rapid-fire, irreverent sense of humor from the first movie comes through loud and clear. I’m also slightly dazzled at the size of the voice cast in this short: in addition to the full lineup of Toy Story regulars (some of whom are there for literally one line), there are many more playing the abandoned toys, including Jane Lynch as the group leader Neptuna.

“Cars Toons: Time Travel Mater”: This new Tall Tale shows how Mater and Lightning McQueen were involved in the founding of Radiator Springs, introducing Stanley as a talking character instead of just a bronze statue in the center of town. I recall that some early storyboards for this short appeared in the bonuses of the “Mater’s Tall Tales” Blu-ray, so it’s nice to see that they built up enough of a story to make the full short. It’s another solid Tall Tale, filled with the usual preposterousness that comes with time-travel stories.

“La Luna”: A young boy accompanies his father and grandfather for the first time in the family business, which involves a boat, anchors, brooms, shovels, rakes, and the moon. I cannot say enough nice things about this short, which accompanied Brave into theaters. Maybe it’s because I’m a sucker for sentiment, or maybe it’s because I’m a son with an occasionally contentious relationship with my father and have a son of my own now. This short uses a quirky magic realism to say something important about how we can be just like our fathers while still needing to find our own way through the world, and about the balance between tradition and innovation. These themes quietly pervade the movie and are expressed in fantastic, truly magical ways from the main plot all the way down to the way the characters wear their hats. I don’t think any of the Pixar shorts have been truly bad (just as I’d say the same about the studio’s feature output), but “La Luna” vaults easily into my top 5, if not the top 2 right next to “Luxo, Jr.”

In addition to the commentary tracks for the shorts, the Pixar Short Films Collection Vol. 2 contains seven student shorts: two each from John Lasseter and Andrew Stanton, plus three from Pete Docter. Lasseter’s shorts (“Nitemare” and “Lady and the Lamp”) are both pencil tests rather than finished animation, and it’s amazing to me how many of the sentiments and themes raised in both these shorts would crop up again in his later films like “Luxo Jr.” and the first Toy Story. Stanton’s shorts (“Somewhere in the Arctic” and “A Story”) are much, much edgier than you’d expect from the guy who directed Finding Nemo and WALL-E; the fact that both of them screened at Spike & Mike’s Sick and Twisted Festivals ought to tell you that you should approach with caution if the kids are watching with you. Pete Docter’s three shorts are much more interesting because of the way they show him growing and changing as a filmmaker. The first two (“Winter” and “Palm Springs”) are mostly setups for punch lines, though the first is much funnier. The third short, “Next Door,” is the most developed of the three (and was nearly abandoned after the Post Office lost a bunch of the original drawings) and contains many seeds that would grow and flourish in Monsters, Inc. and Up.

As with the first set, I’m not entirely sure that the bonuses and the commentary tracks will be enough for a more casual fan to buy this disc. However, for the fans of the studio or of animation in general, the Pixar Short Films Collection Vol. 2 is probably even easier to recommend than the first: the shorts themselves are almost universally splendid, the commentary tracks are worthwhile, and the bonus features are definitely worth checking out.

We’ll see you back here in 2017 for volume 3. Can’t wait to see what’s next.

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