In 1994, a group of animation professionals collaborated on a ranking of the greatest animated shorts ever made for the book The 50 Greatest Cartoons: As Selected by 1,000 Animation Professionals. Written by animation historian Jerry Beck, the novel has since become the definitive word on the subject, and while the undertaking is certainly impressive, time–as well as the animators own set of rules–has dated it severely.
Besides the obvious problem of being written 15 years ago, their guidelines for what should be included (e.g., no stop motion, foreign or anything not cell animated), essentially narrowed the field to American cartoons from 1923 to 1957, which excludes far too many great shorts from all over the world. To rectify this problem, I’ve decided to modernize the list by including every animation type and every country on earth. The only rule that will remain consistent is the running time of 30 minutes.
The aim of this list isn’t to one up the accomplishments of Jerry Beck’s novel but to merely add an asterisk to an already stellar list of shorts. This list is a celebration of animation; honoring those who create the cartoons we love as well as shining a light on everything else (the ones that don’t involve a cartoon mouse or cat essentially).
This is The 100 Greatest Animated Theatrical Shorts.
10. One Froggy Evening (1955)
Director: Chuck Jones
The cartoon Steven Spielberg once described as “the most perfect cartoon ever made…the Citizen Kane (1941) of animated shorts”, One Froggy Evening tells the story of a construction worker who thinks he’s stuck paydirt when he finds a singing and dancing frog but quickly realizes capitalizing on his new found discovery will be damn near impossible since the frog refuses to perform in front of anyone else. It’s an ingeniously simple concept told brilliantly. It’s by far, the greatest stand alone Looney Tunes short.
09. The House of Small Cubes (2008)
Director: Kunio Kato
An old man sits alone in his one room house that’s about to sink. He climbs to the roof where he begins adding another annex to make it higher. The viewer can infer that this is an ongoing problem that he, and everyone around him has to deal with. While on the roof, he accidentally drops his pipe down into one of the lower levels and now must retrieve it. Told in reverse order of Pixar’s Up, the House of Small Cubes is a beautiful short consisting of montages of the main character’s past and is a metaphor about getting old and having to accept the fact that memories are all we have of the past. Although it would be a bit too on the nose, a perfect alternate title would be “sunken treasure.”
08. Rejected (2000)
Director: Don Hertzfeldt
After the success of Billy’s Balloon, commercial agencies immediately contacted Hertzfeldt about the possibility of him making some animated advertisements. He hated the notion of creating glorified candy propaganda but the idea of creating messed up cartoons that might air on tv to sell some sugar to kids intrigued him and Rejected was born. Made up of “Rejected” commercials that are so bizarre, they make the animator go insane, the short slowly devolves into madness until the entire thing implodes. It instantly became a cult classic and is referred to as “this generations A Hard Day’s Night.” My spoon is too big…..
07. Rabbit Seasoning (1952)
Director: Chuck Jones
Animation experts seem to gravitate towards the more technically impressive end of the animation spectrum when determining the best of the best, and while there’s nothing wrong with that approach, ask any Looney Tunes fan which cartoon is the funniest and the vast majority of them will pick Rabbit Seasoning. With the sharpest writing from the underrated Michael Maltese, pitch perfect direction from Chuck Jones and amazing voice work from Mel Blanc, this is Looney Tunes at their most essential.
06. The Old Man and the Sea (1999)
Director: Aleksandr Petrov
The Old Man and the Sea has the distinction of being the first animated movie made exclusively for IMAX screens. Using the painstaking method of “revived painting”, which is the process of using slow-drying oil paints upon a back-lit glass canvas and then manipulating the oils between frames and then photographing the results, Petrov’s masterpiece is arguably the most beautiful looking cartoon ever made. A retelling of Hemingway’s famous story of perseverance in the face of futility, it not only looks gorgeous but is the definitive version of a Hemingway’s book. All films aspire to be great art, this film has the unique distinction of actually being art. Each frame of this film is literally a painting.
05. Steamboat Willie (1928)
Directors: Ub Iwerks, Walt Disney
Much like how the success of Super Mario Bros brought videogames back to life, if it wasn’t for Steamboat Willie, cartoons would’ve only been a minor footnote in history. By the time it had come out, silent cartoons were already deemed passé, with audience members actively booing them whenever they’d appear before a film. The novelty had worn off. But Steamboat Willie had something the rest didn’t– sound. While it wasn’t the first cartoon to feature sound, it was, however, the the first cartoon with a completely post-produced soundtrack of music, dialogue, and sound effects. Which essentially means it had the whole kit ‘n’ caboodle. It’s monumental success immediately killed the Silent Age of Animation and singlehandedly ushered in the Golden Age of Animation. Not bad for a mouse who throws potatoes at parrots and harasses piglets.
04. Duck Amuck (1953)
Director: Chuck Jones
The only time Looney Tunes ever dipped into postmodernism, Duck Amuck is Chuck Jones‘ attempt at asking the question “what makes a character a character? Would you still recognize and accept Daffy as Daffy, if he was no longer a duck?” Using that question as its jumping off point, the short focuses on Daffy getting tormented by an unseen animator. Depicted as a huge pencil, the animator does everything he can to disrupt the cartoon, much to the annoyance of Daffy. Backgrounds are altered, random sound effects are added and Daffy himself is continually redrawn and even erased at one point. Far ahead of its time, Duck Amuck is an audacious experiment in examining what it is exactly that makes a character beloved.
03. World of Tomorrow (2015)
Director: Don Hertzfeldt
A heady mixture of sci-fi tropes and philosophical concepts, World of Tomorrow is Hertzfeldt‘s most ambitious project; which is saying a lot considering he made an entire short examining the meaning of life. Emily is an infant from the present day who meets an adult clone of herself from the future. The malfunctioning third generation clone time traveled for two reasons: 1. To tell the extremely disinterested child what life will be like in about 100 years and 2. To retrieve a memory from the child the clone can no longer remember. Hertzfeldt’s vision of a world made up of scientifically created orphans, human life cycle as an art exhibit and romantic entanglements with a rock, is the most cerebral and profoundly moving depiction of the future I’ve ever seen.
02. The Wrong Trousers (1993)
Director: Nick Park
A Grand Day Out was a fantastic introduction to the loveable duo of Wallace and Gromit but for their follow up, Aardman decided to one up their already impressive homerun with a grand slam. Combining elements of Buster Keaton slapstick, Chuck Jones* sight gags and Spielberg action, the Wrong Trousers is a hilarious jewel heist that includes one of the most diabolical villains in all of animation and a chase scene so good, director Danny Boyle once referred to it as “the best action sequence I’ve ever seen in a film.” This is the crown jewel of stop motion animation.
*don’t turn this list into a drinking game because taking a shot every time his name shows up will most likely kill you before you hit the 40s.
01. What’s Opera Doc? (1957)
Director: Chuck Jones
The first cartoon short to be selected for preservation in the National Film Registry, one of the few animated features included on Roger Ebert‘s Great Movies List and it ranked number 1 in Jerry Beck’s 50 Greatest Cartoons list. What’s Opera Doc? is the most critically acclaimed cartoon in history and for good reason, it’s seven minutes of absolute perfection. Having taken roughly six times as much time and money to produce as most contemporary Looney Tunes shorts, the cartoon is a parody of the operas of Richard Wagner, particularly Der Ring des Nibelungen (especially Die Walküre), and (musically) Der fliegende Holländer and Tannhäuser. That’s a whole lot of time and money on two things could care less about: German folklore and operas.
The plot follows Elmer Fudd (in the role of Siegfried) as he attempts to “Kill da wabbit!” (Bugs, if you hadn’t guessed) with his “speaw and magic hewlmet.” Along the way, Siegfried manages to fall in love Brünnhilde (Bugs in drag) but when he discovers the awful truth, all hell breaks out. Typhoons! Huwwicanes! Eawthquakes! SMOOOOOOGGGGG!!”
Every element of this short was meticulously made; from the ballet sequence between Siegfried and Brünnhilde which was painstakingly choreographed by animators who studied film of actual dancers, to the reworking of famous operatic songs to fit the story (I can’t hear Ride of the Valkyries without hearing Fudd exclaim Kill Da Wabbit!), What’s Opera Doc! is the crème de la crème of animation.
It is The Greatest Cartoon Ever Made.