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.
30. Rabbit Fire (1951) | directed by Chuck Jones
The second in the Rabbit Seasoning trilogy (with Duck, Rabbit, Duck!! (1953) being the last installment) Rabbit Fire, like each entry, is built around the same premise with the same joke–it’s rabbit season but Daffy, not Bugs, is ultimately going to be the one who gets shot. Again and again and again but it never stops being funny. Which is a testament to the brilliance of animator Chuck Jones and writer Michael Maltese that they can milk as much funny from the same joke. They were truly the Lenon/McCartney of animation.
29. Bimbo’s Initiation (1931) | directed by Dave Fleischer
Centering around the Betty Boop Character Bimbo the dog, Bimbo’s Initiation is a surreal slice of phantasmagoria. Tormented by a cult and locked in a bizarre fun house of nightmares, Bimbo is hounded by the secret society to join their group or face dire consequences. Will Bimbo finally relent and join the strange fraternity? Where the hell is Betty Boop? And more importantly, will you ever sleep right after watching this? This was final cartoon featuring Betty Boop to be animated by her creator Grim Natwick, and boy did he go out with a bang.
28. Peter and the Wolf (2006) | directed by Suzie Templeton
Peter and the Wolf is a reinterpretation of Prokofiev’s famous piece that has been updated to contemporary times. The decision to modernize the story makes Suzie Templeton’s adaptation a distinct take unlike any other iteration. Filled with the most impressive stop motion animation since the work of Ivo Caprino and with a fantastic sense of mood and atmosphere, Peter and the Wolf is the absolute best version of a story that’s been done to death.
27. The Cat Came Back (1988) | directed by Cordell Barker
Set to the tune of the 1893 comic song “The Cat Came Back”, the short tells the hilarious misadventures of a man desperately trying to rid himself of an unwanted cat. His plans become increasingly more grandiose after each failed attempt, until he comes up with the ultimate final solution but as the song clearly states… Filled rapid fire gags and a hysterically ironic twist ending, the Cat Came Back is the closest equivalent to a modern Chuck Jones cartoon.
26. Paperman (2012) | directed by John Kahrs
The first (and so far only) black-and-white cartoon ever to win an Oscar, Paperman is the story of an office worker who meets the girl of his dreams and uses a fleet of paper airplanes to get her attention. A sweet, romantic tale told beautifully, this broke Disney’s 33 year losing streak by netting them their first Oscar for animated short since It’s Tough To Be a Bird in 1969.
25. Harvie Krumpet (2003) | directed by Adam Elliot
Director Adam Elliott has built a career out of eccentric, differently abled characters. The first of his shorts were about various members of his family (Uncle, Cousin and Brother respectively) and the difficulties they all went through in life. His feature film debut was about a lonely, middle aged Jewish man with Aspergers who strikes up a friendship with a little girl who relates to his problems. And his Oscar winning short Harvie Krumpet deals with a man with a man who has Tourette’s Syndrome, chronic bad luck, nudist tendencies, and a book of “fakts” hung around his neck. It’s an odd biography of an odd man told by someone with compassion and sympathy. Elliot shows you the weird and the strange but never mocks. In a world of cynicism, he’s a true humanist.
24. The Skeleton Dance (1929) | directed by Ub Iwerks, Walt Disney
The first cartoon made for Walt Disney’s Silly Symphony series, The Skeleton Dance is also the first cartoon to be entirely musically themed and timed, with no dialogue whatsoever. A huge inspiration on animator Joseph Barbera (of Hanna-Barbera fame), the short is adorably quaint today, but at the time, it was deemed too macabre for some theaters. Apparently the site of four dancing skeletons was too much for some in 1929 but the Disney’s perseverance eventually won out– it became a huge hit insuring Silly Symphonies success which in turn meant more Mickey cartoons. If this flopped, who knows what would’ve happened to animation or even Hollywood in general.
23. Logorama (2009) | directed by François Alaux, Hervé de Crécy, Ludovic Houplain
Comprised entirely of corporate logos and Mascots, Logorama is a Tarantino-esque crime thriller mixed with an extremely unsubtle message about capitalism. It’s a satire that isn’t as clever as it thinks it is but although it’s message is painfully obvious, it still gets major points for being audacious and for the fact that it’s entertaining as hell. If you ever thought to yourself “Man, I really want to see an evil Ronald McDonald have a shootout with the Michelin Man after brutally murdering Bob’s Big Boy and Mr. Peanut”, this is the film for you. You should also go talk to a professional because that’s…that’s weird man.
22. Clock Cleaners (1937) | directed by Ben Sharpsteen
Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and Goofy attempt to clean the giant clock tower Big Beth and hilarity naturally ensues. Mickey is at his best when accompanied by Donald and Goofy and there’s no better example of their strengths as a comedic trio than this short. Each character has a problem they have to contend with– Mickey attempts to ward off a stork nesting in the tower who refuses to leave, Donald wages a frustrating battle with a sentient clock spring, and Goofy gets himself into life threatening situations via his own klutziness and stupidity. Each situation offers plenty of gags and all are equally strong enough to never overshadow each other. This is Disney firing on all cylinders.
21. Duck Dodgers in the 24½th Century (1953) | directed by Chuck Jones
An obvious send-up of the Cold War–with Earth representing the United States and Mars (the Red Planet) the Soviet Union–as well as a parody of the old sci-fi serial Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, Duck Dodgers in the 24½th Century features Daffy Duck as the titular space hero Duck Dodgers who, with the help of Porky Pig, battle Marvin the Martian for control of Planet X. One of the few shorts were Daffy is portrayed as a hero (an egotistical one that is still the butt of the joke but still a hero nevertheless), Duck Dodgers in the 24½th Century proved so popular, it led to a number of subsequent Duck Dodgers adventures, as well as a TV show fifty years later.
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!