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.
50. Tale of Tales (1979)
Director: Yuri Norstein
A sort of abstract autobiographical collage made up of memories, real and false, Yuri Norstein‘s frustratingly obtuse Tale of Tales willfully defies interpretation. It’s clearly about the war and at least some of it is about his drunken father but to try and puzzle out the rest of the narrative is a fool’s errand. The short is far more interested in symbolism than realism; which will put off many viewers but if you meet the short on its terms and just let it work it’s magic on you, odds are, you’ll be captivated.
49. Knick Knack (1989)
Director: John Lasseter
The last theatrical short produced before they made the jump to feature length films, Knick Knack is the closest the studio ever got to Chuck Jones. The premise, much like all of Jones’ work, is simple enough that children could easily understand it without dialogue and is written in a way that allows for non-stop gags. A snowman living in a snow globe wants to break free from his plastic prison to join the other knick knacks (most notably the alluring mermaid in a fish bowl) adorning the shelves of wherever it is he lives. It’s charming, well paced and includes a Bobby McFerrin scat score that isn’t terrible. Which might be the most impressive achievement Pixar ever accomplished.
48. Snow White (1933)
Director: Dave Fleischer
Although it is a very, very loose adaption, Fleischer‘s Snow White still gets points for beating Disney to the punch by a full four years. Starring Betty Boop but mostly focusing on Koko the Clown and Bimbo the Dog, the short radically condenses the story to the point where, Koko and Bimbo play essentially the Huntsman and Prince Charming. Filled with bizarre images and a fantastic Cab Calloway performance, Snow White might not made a whole hell of a lot of sense but who watches cartoons for logic anyways?
47. The Scarlet Pumpernickel (1950)
Director: Chuck Jones
A parody of swashbucklers, most notably the Scarlet Pimpernel, The Scarlet Pumpernickel is the first Looney Tunes cartoon that acted like a crossover event. Featuring Daffy Duck, Sylvester the Cat, Porky Pig and with cameos from Elmer Fudd and Mama Bear from Jones‘s Three Bears series, the short is Daffy’s attempt at pitching an over the top adventure film to producer J.L. Warner. Outside of the Duck Dodgers series, this is the closest Daffy ever came to outshining Bugs.
46. Father and Daughter (2000)
Director: Michael Dudok de Wit
Three films were nominated for best Animated Short in 2000: Daniel Defoe’s bleak Journal of the Plague Year, Don Hertzfeldt‘s massively influential Rejected and Michael Dudok de Wit‘s Father and Daughter. While Rejected would eventually go on to eclipse the other two in terms of popularity, Father and Daughter is still a master class in style and minimalist storytelling. On the surface, it’s a simple story of a little girl who spends her life waiting for her father to return after he abandons her but there’s far more going on if you’re paying attention. It’s emotional without ever feeling manipulative and is beautiful without feeling showy. Rejected deserves its fame but this deserved its acclaim.
45. Presto (2008)
Director: Doug Sweetland
Reminiscent of the gag a minute work done by Tex Avery, Bob Clampett, and Frank Tashlin in the ’40s, Presto provides non-stop slapstick that gets more outrageously funny with each new gag before its satisfying crescendo. A magician’s bunny is hungry and wants a carrot but since the magician is running behind, he doesn’t feed him. The bunny refuses to cooperate until he gets a carrot and the magician, getting more and more angry at his insubordination, refuses to give in. The short actually goes far beyond that premise by introducing actual magic to further ladle on the jokes. This might be the funniest thing Pixar has ever made.
44. Rooty Toot Toot (1951)
Director: John Hubley
Taking the old Murder Ballad “Frankie and Johnny” and injecting it with a bebop energy, Rooty Toot Toot is essentially the same story as Chicago (2002) but told far more memorably and effectively at 1/10th the running time. With a plot akin to Rashomon, we see the same event–Frankie shooting Johnny–three times, each with slightly different context. Visually stunning with a swinging soundtrack, Rooty Toot Toot is jazz personified.
43. The Man Who Planted Trees (1987)
Director: Frédéric Back
Based on the short story by Jean Giono, The Man Who Planted Trees tells the story of Elzeard Bouffier, a humble shepherd who single-handedly revitalizes a desolate Alpine valley by planting trees. To achieve the film’s look, Back sketched on matte acetate with colored pencils, adding in layers of shading as scenes blend from one to the other, using multiple exposures to create an audacious portrait of an environmentalist that amazingly, never feels preachy. It’s a character study about a man who changed the world simply by planting trees. It’s beautiful.
42. On Your Mark (1995)
Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Even if you are slightly familiar with animation, you know the work of Hayao Miyazaki. Often dubbed “the Japanese Walt Disney” (a moniker he loathes), Miyazaki has consistently proven over his 30+ years making films, that he is the greatest animation director of all time. Even though he’s acquired worldwide fame and has made numerous classics, few know about the shorts he’s produced. Set in the future, two men learn that a mysterious winged girl has been taken prisoner, and then decide that they must free her at any cost. On Your Mark packs as much character, action and heart in its seven minutes, than most films do in their entirety.
41. The Meaning of Life (2005)
Director: Don Hertzfeldt
Taking over seven years to make, this twelve minute short is Hertzfeldt’s humorous, sometimes thought provoking question to the ultimate question–“what is the meaning of life?” Much like his feature film It’s Such a Beautiful Day, the director highlights the beauty in the absurd and digs deep into the nature of existence to create a rich tapestry of existential dread and absolute hope. How one man can solely animate such a complex film with no computers is as impressive and hard to grasp as the theme of the film, which is literally about everything. That’s how insane his work is in this.