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.
70. This Way Up (2008) | directed by Adam Foulkes, Alan Smith
Two morticians are contacted to pick up the body of someone recently deceased but through a series of hilarious circumstances, the two men go through literal hell just trying to get the damned woman into some holy ground. Darkly comedic but never morbid, This Way Up is what you get if you put Tex Avery and Tim Burton in a blender.
69. Unicorn in the Garden (1953) | directed by William T. Hurtz
Based directly on James Thurber’s short story of the same name, Unicorn in the Garden deals with the fundamental conflict between men and women, and the romantic vs. practical mindset represented by each, respectively. Or alternatively, it’s a silly short about a man who can see something magical and is constantly getting berated by his nagging wife. Either or. With an art style that closely imitates the author’s own illustrations, Unicorn in the Garden is among the best looking cartoons produced by UPA and that’s saying a lot.
68. The Street (1976) | directed by Caroline Leaf
The story, “A young Jewish boy impatiently waits for his grandmother to die so he can have her room”, isn’t exactly going to put asses in the seats, but it’s depiction of a Jewish family living in New York during the early 20th century, is so fully realized, so authentic, you’d swear the director had lived there all their life. The only thing more shocking than the fact that they hadn’t, is the technique used to create the short. Each individual frame was painted on glass, which gives it a distinct look that’s unlike anything else. Come for the story and stay for the visuals.
67. The Great Piggy Bank Robbery (1946) | directed by Robert Clampett
While reading his beloved Dick Tracy comic book, Daffy knocks himself out—upon which he enters a fantasy in which he is Duck Twacy, who has to investigate a conspicuous piggy bank robbery crime wave. What ensues is a very atmospheric parody of a typical detective movie, albeit peppered with typical mainstays of Bob Clampett’s shorts, including strong emphasis on musical timing, plenty of wordplay, dynamic background layouts, and some of the most bizarre, expressive animation displayed on the Silver Screen since the heydays of Fleischer Studios.
66. The Big Snit (1985) | directed by Richard Condie
Made during the atomic bomb scare of the 80’s, the Big Snit is a comedic look at the hysteria surrounding it and the futility of it all. A couple plays Scrabble. He’s not doing so well (he has seven tiles all E’s). She decides to vacuum the bathroom, while he plans his next move. She comes back and catches him cheating. A fight ensues. She can’t stand him sawing the furniture and he can’t stand her shaking her eyes. They yell. They make up. All the while, they don’t notice the pandemonium occurring outside. It’s surreal. It’s silly. It’s hilarious. But most importantly, It’s heart-warming.
65. The Dover Boys at Pimento University or The Rivals of Roquefort Hall (1942) | directed by Chuck Jones
A parody of The Rover Boys Series (a relative obscurity from Edward Stratemeyer, creator of Tom Swift, the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew), The Dover Boys at Pimento University or The Rivals of Roquefort Hall tells three story of three brothers who all share the same fianceé and their ongoing attempts to thwart their nemesis who has made it his mission to steal away their lady. While nowhere as popular as the non animal starring Looney Tunes cartoons, The Dover Boys still remains one of the best cartoons Chuck Jones ever made.
64. Luxo Jr. (1986) | directed by John Lasseter
One of the greatest things about animation is the way it can imbue inanimate objects with emotions. A standard desk lamp watches a small ball roll across the table beside him, closely followed by a small desk lamp chasing it and pushing it all over the place much to the bemusement of the elder lamp. In lesser hands, this short is just two inanimate objects interacting with another inanimate object but because it’s Pixar, that’s a mother watching her son play with a ball. There’s no information given to determine the sex of the elder lamp but it’s all in the details.
63. The Tell-Tale Heart (1953) | directed by Ted Parmelee
Edgar Allen Poe once said that everything in a short story should be toward one effect, and certainly, there has been no better attempt on film to achieve the kind of formal and emotional control Poe suggested was the story teller’s goal than this adaptation of his story The Tell-Tale Heart. In barely 8 minutes the short perfectly captures the haunting atmosphere of the Gothic novel with a stark color palette and phenomenal narration by James Mason.
62. Crac! (1981) | directed by Frédéric Back
Told over the course of thirty years, Crac! is the story of a family seen through the eyes of their beloved rocking chair. According to various sources, the deeper meaning is that it’s about the industrialization of Montreal as seen from the view of a rocking chair, which is, in itself, a metaphor about destroying a piece of nature to serve your own needs or blah blah blah. Ignore the subtext and focus instead on the gorgeous visuals and fantastic soundtrack.
61. There Once Was a Dog (1982) | directed by Eduard Nazarov
Eduard Nazarov’s adaptation of a Ukrainian folk tale depicts a dog and wolf who concoct a plan to help the dog get back into the good graces of his family, who kicked him out due to him out living his usefulness. A fable about the perfect symbiosis, There Once Was a Dog might not have the slickest animation but it’s moral–that good is always rewarded with good, outweighs the shorts flaws.
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!