Apparently I live under a rock.
I had no idea that we had not one, not two, but THREE new shorts from Pixar now available on YouTube!
A few nights ago, I was perusing YouTube for some of the old Disney Silly Symphonies cartoons from the 1920’s and 30’s. Suddenly, a cartoon was recommended to me called “Purl,” seemingly made by Pixar. I was sort of confused since I consider myself pretty knowledgeable in regard to Pixar’s output and had never heard of this short.
And it turns out there are three I didn’t know about: Purl, Smash and Grab, and Kitbull are the first three short cartoons to come out from Pixar’s new Sparkshorts project. In the words of Pixar Animation Studios President Jim Morris:
“The SparkShorts program is designed to discover new storytellers, explore new storytelling techniques, and experiment with new production workflows. These films are unlike anything we’ve ever done at Pixar, providing an opportunity to unlock the potential of individual artists and their inventive filmmaking approaches on a smaller scale than our normal fare.”
Short films have been a part of Pixar’s theatrical releases since the first Toy Story hit theaters. If you aren’t familiar with how great they are, I would highly recommend checking out the Pixar Short Films Collections Volumes 1 and 2 (currently available in a bundle) and Volume 3, all available on DVD/Blu-Ray. These short films harken back to the earliest days of animation, when all cartoons were 5-10 minutes long.
Unlike in the past, when short cartoons have been shown theatrically before the main features, these shorts seemed to come out of nowhere. I spend way too much time reading Disney news sites and I simply had no clue these were on their way to YouTube. (Update: these did run theatrically for a week in California).
For those of us who love animation, as well as Pixar’s history of quality control and mastery of storytelling, this is awesome news. I’m thrilled at the prospect of as many new artists having a chance to experiment with animated storytelling with the power of Pixar behind them.
So, how are the actual shorts?
All three excel in the areas of animation and design. When it comes to the individual stories, in my opinion none of these first three entries into the SparkShorts canon ranks up there with the best of Pixar’s short films. That’s not to say they aren’t really good in their own ways, though.
Purl is a really cool piece that centers on the difficulties of women fitting into male-dominated workplaces. This is a pretty amazing topic to be explored in animation. It’s the first time I can think of that Pixar (or any modern animation company) has made something so pointed and topical. What it lacks in subtlety it more then makes up for in animation and messaging. The language is actually a bit rough for young kids, but the overall theme that one should stay true to themselves and not change to fit in with a crowd is timeless and ageless. I really liked Purl and I hope the SparkShorts series continues to use animation to tell more of these kinds of stories.
Next up is Smash and Grab, which sort of fits comfortably in Pixar’s wheelhouse. It has a distinctly Wall-E feel to it.
The story centers on two robots who communicate through sounds and gestures (kind of like Wall-E and Eve). These two robot pals want more out of their lot in life than the manual labor they’re being forced to complete (like Wall-E and Eve). Heavy firepower is involved (ok, you get the picture).
I liked Smash and Grab plenty – it looks fantastic. I will say the similarities to Wall-E’s overall vibe and themes were a little distracting, but that’s only if I’m being nit-picky. Would I be excited if they announced a Smash and Grab feature-length film or Disney Channel series? Sure!
Finally we have my favorite of the three, Kitbull.
Hoo boy. If you’re an animal lover and you can watch this thing without getting the cryball, congrats.
Kitbull is a simple story about a dog and a cat becoming friends in a tough situation. While not as narratively daring as Purl, or as fantastic to look at as Smash and Grab, Kitbull is a wonderful cartoon all its own. It deals with some great themes (like not judging a book by its cover) and some surprisingly dark imagery (there is clearly dog fighting happening just out of the audience’s view).
What I was really struck by was the animation of the dog and cat. It was a great throwback to a time when Walt Disney himself wanted his filmmakers to learn from watching real life in motion. There are stories (and photographic evidence) about actual deer being brought in to prep animators for drawing Bambi, and kittens being all over the studios during the making of Aristocats.
The people in charge of animating the dog and cat in Kitbull have done their homework. If you’ve ever lived with a dog or cat, you’ll recognize almost every move they make throughout this story.
Kitbull ended up being my favorite simply because it’s the one that provoked the most reaction out of me. Just be sure to have Kleenex at hand.
Pixar’s website already lists titles and descriptions for their next three SparkShorts, though as far as I could tell there isn’t a release date for them. Needless to say, I am incredibly excited to see what else comes out of this initiative. It also looks like a great opportunity to offer creators of diverse backgrounds a chance to tell their stories, and if you’ve seen Coco then you know just how wonderful that opportunity can be.