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 Theatrical Animated Shorts of All Time.
100. Bambi Meets Godzilla (1969) | directed by Marv Newland
What is essentially a one second gag stretched out to 90 seconds, Bambi Meets Godzilla was created as a student project in 1969 that unexpectedly turned into a cult favorite who’s popularity still endures to this day. You can see it’s brand of humor in everything Adult Swim produces and it might be solely responsible for the influx of obnoxious non sequitur commercials that started popping up in the last couple of years. It’s ground zero for random comedy; It all starts here.
99. Hair Love (2019) | directed by Matthew A. Cherry
Winner of the 2020 Academy Award for best Animated Short, Hair Love was so immediately beloved by audiences and critics, that it’s Kickstarter blew way past its goal and resulted in an illustrated book (that the director also wrote) and the short itself was re-released in theaters three separate times. While the story is simple: a father tries to do his daughter’s hair for the first time, its themes are universal. You can relate to the father who’s just trying his hardest to please his daughter and you can relate to the daughter who just wants to look good. As the title suggests, it’s about hair and more importantly, it’s about love.
98. Head Over Heels (2012) | directed by Timothy Reckart
Head Over Heels is a stop-frame animation short film with a brilliant hook: Walter and Madge have grown so far apart after years of marriage, that not only are they not talking to each other, they live completely different lives–with one living on the floor and the other living on the ceiling. It’s a brilliant visual metaphor that the director uses to great effect. Not every story needs to reinvent the wheel. Sometimes all a director needs to do, is to tell a story you already know but in a new and interesting way and this film is perfect example of that. And it’s title is one of the best puns ever devised.
97. Your Face (1987) | directed by Bill Plympton
Although both have similar techniques and backgrounds, Plympton never quite caught on with audiences like Mike Judge (or amassed just enough popularity to become a household name), he has nevertheless garnered a big enough fanbase to keep from becoming forgotten. One of the biggest figures in independent animation, Plympton has been churning out shorts since ’85, with Your Face being arguably his best, or at the very least his most accessible. A montage of a face getting warped and distorted, Your Face has only one thing on its mind–to entertain and it does so effortlessly.
96. The Three Inventors (1980) | directed by Michel Ocelot
Combining the flavors of XVIII century steampunk with exquisite lace animation, the Three Inventors is an old tale that feels refreshingly original due to its animation style. Picking up where Lotte Reiniger left off, director Michel Ocelot uses what looks like your grandmother’s collection of lace coasters, to craft a wholly original work of art. The story, involving three inventors whose inventions are deemed offensive by the local community, isn’t particularly captivating but while it lacks a strong narrative, the visuals are the real selling point anyways. Sometimes style is the substance.
95. When the Day Breaks (1999) | directed by Amanda Forbis, Wendy Tilby
While the films message – in a world where everybody is connected yet nobody talks to one another and that everyone we meet and every action we take, has an effect on everything – is a bit heavy handed, the execution keeps it from becoming over bearing or emotionally manipulative. Completely devoid of understandable dialogue and with a cast made up of anthropomorphized animals, the short eschews the typical narrative in favor of focusing on the mundane and finds beauty in the banal. It’s a unique, beautifully rendered tale that makes something as simple as potato peels and a lemon breathtakingly poignant.
94. Feelings of Mountains and Waters (1988) | directed by Wei Te
Made in the highly poetic “Shan sui” style (traditional Chinese painting that features natural landscapes and uses brush and ink instead of paints), Feelings of Mountains and Waters is one of the most visually striking films ever created. A wordless poem on nature and our relationship to it, the film was designed to be the closest thing to actual meditation that animation can create. You don’t watch this film, you experience it.
93. Tyll the Giant (1980) | directed by Rein Raamat
Based on an Estonian folk tale about the gigantic hero, Tõll, who lived on the island of Saaremaa in the Baltic Sea, Tyll the Giant is hyper violent, surreal fantasy unlike any other. Since its subject matter is completely foreign to almost everyone on the planet, the story is a bit hard to follow but the visuals and unique mythology more than make up for any of its shortcomings. If you liked it, I recommend checking out the director’s next short Põrgu (1983) or the Hungarian masterpiece Son of the White Mare (1981).
92. Tango (1981) | directed by Zbigniew Rybczynski
Rybczyński (who had what was unarguably the worst Oscar night of any winner ever) must’ve seen the Marx Brothers’ A Night at the Opera at some point in his life because this short plays out exactly like that film’s iconic crowded room scene but cranked up to 11. The film consists of live-action characters repeating a simple action in one room with new characters being added after the last sequence is finished but the fun is, that the characters never overlap. No two characters occupy the same space at the same time. It’s a chaotic puzzle of a film that’ll keep you watching to see how crazy it gets.
91. La Linea 1 (1971) | directed by Franco Godi
Originally conceived as a commercial for kitchenware, La Linea proved to be such a smash hit with audiences that it spawned an incredibly popular long running TV show. Much like Chuck Jones’ Duck Amuck (1953), the premise is simple: the character in the cartoon knows he’s in a cartoon but since he can’t help but antagonize the animator, the main character gets drawn into situations intended to mess with him. It’s a simple joke that due its short length, never out stays its welcome.
What do you think of the selection so far? What are some of your favorite short films that you saw in theaters? Maybe they will show up further on the list!