Though I do love most of Pixar’s early releases (Monster’s Inc being my personal favourite), I think everyone can agree that the shorts are where some of the studio’s best work can be found. Beginning with The Adventures of Andre & Wally B and continuing up to the Oscar-winning Bao, these shorts have remained consistently critically acclaimed, and are one of the most defining elements of seeing a Pixar film at the cinema. But this tradition is set to change with the recent development of SparkShorts, experimental short films made by Pixar animators that are released for free on their YouTube channel to highlight unrecognized talent in the studio. So to celebrate this idea, here are three mini-reviews of the first three shorts that have been released, with links in the title so you can check them out and support the program:
Kitbull: An Adorable and Affecting 2D Outing (Rating: 9/10)
In a Pixar first, this debut short is entirely two-dimensional, though ironically the deepest and most fleshed out of the shorts so far. Following a stray kitten and its eventual friendship with an abused pit bull, the short by Rosana Sullivan explores themes of trust, abandonment, societal disadvantage, and difference.
Amazingly, it pulls off all these themes without seeming at all on-the-nose or preachy and lets you as a viewer draw your own conclusions about what you’re watching. Sure, you can easily come away thinking that you’ve just seen a sweet story about some cute animals, but you might also interpret a story about learning to understand another’s experiences, and how you can best help people who have been through trauma. It’s also worth mentioning that the designs of the main two characters help you warm up to them almost instantly – they’re visibly dirty and damaged, and their expressiveness allows you to seamlessly understand both their pain and their kindness.
Out of the three available on YouTube, Kitbull is by far my favourite, and I can’t recommend it highly enough, particularly to fellow animal lovers.
Smash and Grab: A Cute If Unoriginal Tale of Friendship (Rating: 7/10)
Of all the SparkShorts, this is probably the one I enjoyed the least, but that’s not to say that Smash and Grab is bad by any means. Featuring an unlikely friendship (I’m sensing a theme here) between two robots assigned to work on a futuristic train, the film by Brian Larsen is a solid and impressive piece of animation, with some cool environments and a genuine sense of tension at the climax.
To be fair, I think the primary reason I didn’t enjoy Smash and Grab as much as the other two was because I watched it immediately after Kitbull, which featured a similar premise and resonated far more with me. But regardless, the concept of codependency and symbiosis suggested by the title does work well in this short format story, as you understand very quickly the dynamic of the robots’ relationship. It’s also interesting to see a Pixar short with some genuine science fiction elements – the only other short I can think of that has done this is Lifted, which plays the alien premise entirely for laughs.
Though far from my favourite, if you’re wanting to watch these shorts, Smash and Grab is still a well thought out and admirable short that maintains the Pixar seal of quality.
Purl: A Brave Response To Institutional Sexism (Rating: 8/10)
As undoubtedly the most political Pixar short to have been made (rivaling only WALL-E for their most political creation full stop), Purl comes off as a bold and intelligent reaction to the recent revelations of John Lasseter’s alleged sexism. I felt disappointed to hear about this as a fan of the studio, so I can only imagine how it must feel to any prospective female employees – this is the subject of the film, starring a ball of yarn in an aggressively male-dominated workplace.
While the least impressive looking of all the films in terms of how adventurous the animation is, the fairly simple visuals are at least framed appealingly, and the cinematography effectively highlights the divide between Purl and her new workmates. Unlike the other two films, in which you can come away with multiple interpretations, Purl is almost entirely allegorical, and while this does prevent wider perspectives on the short, it does get across its single point extremely clearly and effectively. As a side note, it is a little bizarre to see a Pixar film with some mild swearing in – part of releasing your shorts on YouTube would mean less strict censorship, I suppose, and it does assist in truly conveying the ‘bro-ness’ of the male characters.
With or without the Lasseter context, Purl is an interesting watch that emphasizes the subtle sexism that still exists in many workplaces, Pixar sadly included.
So there are my reviews! I may have preferred some over others, but I still highly recommend every single one, and I hope that you follow the links to see them for yourself – these new directors certainly deserve ten minutes of your time.