Last year, we devoted a cover story to how Catmull and Lasseter helped shape Disney’s turnaround at Disney—but with the release last week of Walt Disney Animation Studios’ Short Films Collection, which rounds up 12 shorts dating back as far as 2000 on one blu-ray release, you can watch that transformation happen. In just under 80 minutes, the Collection is a crash course in just how drastically Lasseter and Ed Catmull turned things around.
For evidence, watch the three pre-Lasseter and Catmull shorts included in the set: 2000’s John Henry based on the folklore hero; Lorenzo (2004), about a pompous cat whose tail gets cursed; and The Little Matchgirl (2006), the final project to use Disney/Pixar’s CAPS animation system. (The latter two were originally intended for a planned third Fantasia film.) The shorts show moments of stylistic flair, such as quilting in John Henry or tempera paint backgrounds for Lorenzo, but the stories delve into purposeless and at times oppressive darkness. The studio needed a sharp turn, and that’s exactly what Lasseter and Catmull provided.
This isn’t just a diverting grab-bag of short films, it’s a compelling history lesson, one that tells the story of Disney’s latest turnaround not with behind-the-scenes anecdotes, but with empirical qualitative improvement. With that context in mind, here are the best films from the Catmull/Lasseter era at Walt Disney Animation Studios so far.
9. Prep & Landing – Operation: Secret Santa (2010)
A short produced as a part of the series of ABC Christmas specials has Betty White voicing Mrs. Claus and some nifty Mission:Impossible visual homages, but it’s the film in the collection that gives off the most gun-for-hire vibes.
8. Tick Tock Tale (2010)
Director Dean Wellins first pitched this story of an off clock becoming the unlikely hero of a clock store in 2006, but then his work on Rapunzel (which eventually became Tangled) got in the way before he could come back to finish it. While you can feel the strain of the production interruptions, it still has some of the charm of those early Pixar shorts that anthropomorphize everyday objects, making good use of clock faces to convey human expressions.
7. How To Hook Up Your Home Theater (2007)
The first Goofy solo short film in 46 years was the first to utilize Toon Boom Harmony animation software.. Even a mere eight years later, this feels incredibly dated, thanks to the advent of streaming, but it’s still pleasant to watch Goofy bumble through his process, even when trying his darnedest. (Using a chainsaw to trim away loose cable will never not be funny.)
6. Frozen Fever (2015)
A clever double-meaning in the title refers both to the plot line and to the original Frozen’s massive economic success. The song in the short isn’t quite as funny or memorable as the Oscar-winning work in the feature film. But the visuals are impeccable, the snowy effects still whimsical, and the concept of Anna following a string around the castle to find birthday gifts works surprisingly well.
5. Tangled Ever After (2012)
Funny, silent animals are often a recipe for a great short film. Maximus the horse and Pascal the chameleon were great adversaries in Tangled, and they make even better bumbling allies here, struggling mightily not to screw up a royal wedding by losing the rings. And in a great confluence of current events and short film production, Prince William and Kate Middleton’s wedding was going on at the time, leading to some of the short’s best gags about the obscene commodification of the event into branded items—especially the always hilarious frying pan. Tangled is a criminally underrated Disney film, and the same goes for this short.
4. The Ballad Of Nessie (2011)
Narrated by Billy Connolly, who would go on to have a role in Pixar’s Scotland-set Brave, this film ranks ranks highly not because of a cutting-edge visual style, but because of its easily understood theme. (That made it a perfect match for 2011’s Winnie the Pooh, which still flies under the radar as a great film.) So many short films simply offer eye candy without attempting to convey a message, but Nessie sends a powerful one that flies in the face of archetypal British stoicism: “No matter what folks may say, never be afraid to cry. It really is okay. Sometimes it’s through our tears we find a better way.”
3. Feast (2014)
An adorable adopted Boston Terrier named Winston learns to gorge on table scraps and hates his owner’s new neat-freak vegetarian girlfriend—only to help get the couple back together after they break up. It’s a simple premise, executed beautifully with excellent silent humor, and a whiff of theme about unselfishness and family. Director Patrick Osbourne using an app called 1 Second Everyday inspired not only the timeline of the film, but the standout editing, which helps add an enormous amount of depth to Winston’s character. It feels like a full arc in a film made mostly out of montage snippets.
2. Get A Horse! (2013)
There’s a lot of antiquated gender dynamics and troubling violence going on here, even for a throwback to the earliest Disney days of Mickey and Minnie Mouse films. But it sits near the top because of the outstanding visual gambit, which plays with 2D and computer animation in wildly inventive ways. The degree of difficulty on animating characters bouncing back and forth from 2D to 3D layers is astonishing, and Get A Horse! manages to eschew its outdated and occasionally tiresome action beats with an incredible visual dexterity, cleverly utilizing meta-narrative as an imaginative jumping-off point instead of as a crutch for humor.
1. Paperman (2012)
This is the platonic ideal of a Disney/Pixar short film: it furthers animation technology by blending new techniques, tells a compelling story, and looks utterly stunning. Paperman was the first Disney animated short to win an Oscar in 43 years, and it’s the culmination of Lasseter and Catmull’s overhaul of the studio. All of the shorts since this beautifully simple and elegant black-and-white story have been marvelous, but this was the first big creative peak in the short form for Walt Disney Animation Studios. It has everything, from gorgeously rendered sound and music to just the right narrow focus, and the trademark touch of fantastical magic that makes it quintessentially Disney.