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.
20. The Band Concert (1935) | directed by Wilfred Jackson
The first Mickey Mouse cartoon made in Technicolor, and still one of his most popular of the Classic Disney Shorts, The Band Concert is about Mickey’s attempt to conduct Gioachino Rossini’s William Tell Overture at an outdoor picnic, while Donald Duck keeps distracting the band with his awful rendition of the song Turkey in the Straw. Armed with an infinite arsenal of flutes, Donald tries in vain to one up the band but a swarm of bees and a massive thunderstorm eventually present a much bigger problem. While not as funny as the Clock Cleaners or groundbreaking as Steamboat Willie, the short is still visually stunning and a remains a technical marvel.
19. Day and Night (2010) | directed by Teddy Newton
An extraordinarily innovative feat of animated storytelling, Day and Night centers on two polar opposite entities, who, despite their differences, learn to appreciate each other through their unlikely similarities. At first, they are competitors– one the day; who has the benefit of the light and the sun, the other the night; who offers less life but just as many equally impressive sights and sounds. The message at the end is delivered with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer to the face but when the rest of the short is nothing short of brilliant, it’s easy to overlook.
18. Gertie the Dinosaur (1914) | directed by Winsor McCay
Created by animation pioneer Winsor McCay, Gertie the Dinosaur is a landmark cartoon that not only shaped the landscape of animation, it influenced many artists and future animation pioneers, including Walt Disney, Paul Terry and Otto Messmer. Incorporating live action vaudeville bits, the short is little more than a dinosaur walking, stopping for a bit to eat a tree and interacting with whatever actor presented the short. There’s not much more to it than that but history has been made with less.
17. Geri’s Game (1997) | directed by Jan Pinkava
Perfectly blending the melancholy with the humorous, Geri’s Game involves an elderly man playing a competitive game of chess with himself in a local park. Each version of himself, is a distinct individual, complete with their own mannerisms and attitudes. One is a shrewd, ruthless player that takes joy in defeating his opponent. The other is a more timid but equally cunning competitor. Debuting in front of a Bug’s Life (1997), this was the first Pixar short many of us saw and its stuck with us ever since.
16. Winnie the Pooh (1969) | directed by Fyodor Khitruk
Between 1969 and 1972, the Soviet Union commissioned three Winnie the Pooh shorts to be made and these things are delightful. It’s crazy to see how two different countries adapt the same source material but end up with drastically different results. They didn’t alter the story in anyway yet Pooh comes off as way less aloof and far more charming than his American counterpart. It’s hard to pinpoint how since they really didn’t change anything but he comes across as smarter and less of a greedy ass in this one. He does the same things in the same order as the version we all know and love but comes across as infinitely more likable. Score one for the Russkies.
15. The Old Mill (1937) | directed by Wilfred Jackson
Made to test the capabilities of Disney’s animators, the Old Mill is technically a glorified tech demo to make sure the studio was able to handle Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), as well as a trial run to test Disney’s new Multiplane Camera. Filled with no characters, plot or dialogue, the short consists of nothing but a handful of animals taking refuge in a dilapidated mill during a storm. It’s minimalist in its approach but the results are nothing short of jaw-dropping. It’s naturalistic sound and impressive staging create a distinct mood piece that’s enlivened by gorgeous three-strip Technicolor. Pretty impressive for an animation exercise.
14. The Hand (1965) | directed by Jirí Trnka
The last directorial effort by Czechoslovakian filmmaker Jirí Trnka, the Hand is a scathing indictment on totalitarianism and even though it was awarded the highest award for animation, it was banned by the government. Each organization knew the power this short had. A secluded ceramist sees his life turn upside down when a gigantic white gloved hand invades his space, demanding that a sculpture be made in its image. Even if the political overtones flew over your head, it still works as a metaphor for an artist becoming an unwilling slave to commerce. It’s an amazing example of an artists civil disobedience that’s still relevant to this day.
13. A Grand Day Out (1989) | directed by Nick Park
The first entry in the much beloved British series, A Grand Day Out sees the cheese loving duo construct a makeshift rocket in order to get an unlimited supply of moon cheese. When Nick Park makes a short, he dominates the competition so thoroughly, the only time he’s ever lost, was to himself. This lost to the enjoyable Creature Comforts but as charming as that short is, it pales in comparison to Wallace and Gromit; the closest thing Britain has to Mickey Mouse.
12. Hedgehog in the Fog (1975) | directed by Yuri Norstein
In 2003, Hedgehog in the Fog was voted the greatest animated film of all time according to a survey of 140 film critics and animators from all around the world. It has also earned over 35 international awards. All of which is mighty impressive considering it’s a ten minute short about a hedgehog getting lost in the woods and due to the thick fog, is frightened by innocuous objects and creatures. But like with many other shorts on this list, It’s not what a movie is about, it’s how it is about it. The brilliance of its storytelling is that it rewards what you bring to it. If you think it’s boring and pretentious or unoriginal and overrated, that’s all you’ll get from it but if you let it work it’s magic on you, you’ll end up as enchanted by the new and unfamiliar just like the hedgehog herself.
11. Rabbit of Seville (1950) | directed by Chuck Jones
Released six years after the Woody Woodpecker version, Chuck Jones’ take on the famous opera has easily eclipsed that cartoon in popularity and additionally, has become synonymous with the opera itself. It’s now impossible to hear Gioachino Rossini (not that you ever would outside of this context) without thinking of Bugs and Elmer Fudd. With action synchronized to the music, it’s a laugh riot as well as a technical marvel. Fantasia (1940) may have revolutionized animation by having the entire film animated to the music but as amazing as that is, it’s still nowhere as memorable or technically impressive as anything Chuck Jones did.
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 in the top 10!