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.
80. Special Delivery (1978) | directed by Eunice Macaulay, John Weldon
A man’s refusal to clean the snow off his front porch leads to the death of his mailman, which then leads to one of the craziest series of events ever depicted in a cartoon. Acting like the world’s most insane version of “and then”, Special Delivery‘s story falls apart the second you apply any amount of logic to it but when a cartoon is this entertaining, why bother?
79. Bad Luck Blackie (1949) | directed by Tex Avery
The set up is simple– a cute little kitten gets bullied repeatedly by a sadistic dog, who then enlists the aid of a bad luck causing black cat to give the dog a taste of his own medicine. It’s barely a premise, let alone a plot but all it needs to be is a loose framework in which to stage Tex Avery gags and once they start, they don’t stop. The fun isn’t in the gag itself (something falls on the dogs head) but the escalation. We know once the cat crosses his path, something heavy will fall from the sky and bonk him in the head but Avery keeps us engaged because we don’t know what’s going to fall on his head this time. And it never disappoints.
78. The Barber of Seville (1944) | directed by Shamus Culhane
Released six years before the immortal Rabbit of Seville (1950), Woody Woodpecker’s version is admittedly not as strong or as memorable but that isn’t to say it isn’t still good. Featuring the first appearance of the redesigned Woody, producer Walter Lantz desperately needed a hit after his idea to revive Oswald the Lucky Rabbit proved unpopular, as were his other creations Andy Panda and Wally Walrus. He put all his chips on Woody and it paid off spectacularly. He might have a smaller cultural footprint than Mickey Mouse or Bugs Bunny but there was a time when he was as big as both of them and it was due to this cartoon.
77. The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore (2011) | directed by William Joyce, Brandon Oldenburg
Starting off very much like the Wizard of Oz (1939), The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore uses a storm to transport our hero to a fantastical world where books are alive and that he’s the only one that can fix them. Staged like a surgery, his job is to repair broken books by giving them cover transplants and mending their pages. It’s a whimsical story about the power of books and how important it is to keep them alive. Which is all the more ironic considering you’re reading this on an electronic device.
76. La Luna (2011) | directed by Enrico Casarosa
Pixar shorts are designed to be easily understood by any age and language. That’s why most of them are silent, to appeal to everyone. A child has no problem grasping the concepts of a giant bird getting harassed by a group of smaller birds or two street musicians fighting over a little girls coin and while La Luna isn’t overly complex, I’d argue it’s the first of their shorts to dip a toe in the abstract. Any kid will be able to discern what the characters are doing on the moon but this is the first short that might ask them “why?” No answer is given, nor is one necessary but the fact that it has just enough ambiguity to spark imagination, is why it’s on this list.
75. The Mysterious Geographical Explorations of Jasper Morello (2005) | directed by Anthony Lucas
Most shorts deal with simple plots or are constructed around a particular gag. They are designed around a predetermined runtime and wouldn’t function if they ran even a minute over. At 26 minutes, The Mysterious Geographical Explorations of Jasper Morello is a bit longer than most shorts but that’s still remarkably short considering how densely packed it is. It is one of the only shorts I’ve ever seen who’s narrative and characters are as strong as a feature length film. Borrowing from such diverse inspirations as Blackwood, Lovecraft, and Poe, as well as Tim Burton and the visual style of Karel Zeman, Jasper Morello is a unique, steampunk horror tale that rivals many films twice it’s length.
74. Out Of Sight (2010) | directed by Ya-Ting Yu
Working as a beautiful love letter to Studio Ghibli, Out Of Sight is an utterly charming story about a little blind girl who’s guide dog chases off after the thief who stole her bag, leaving her stranded by herself. In her attempt to find her dog, she finds a stick that, because of her imagination, turns her into a witch that can help her visualize the world around her through sound. But since she’s a child, who’s also blind, she sees the world in a much more fantastical way. Giant birds pecking into the ground replace jackhammers, a bus driving on a wet street transform into weird fish mobiles and the sound of an airplane passing over head is now a gigantic flying whale. There is more charm and originality packed into this five minute short, than I’ve seen in most Hollywood films.
73. Peace on Earth (1939) | directed by Hugh Harman
The only cartoon to be nominated for a Nobel Peace prize, Peace on Earth is a cautionary tale about the destructive nature of man and how war might eventually wipe us all out. It’s heavy handed but well meaning propaganda that was released right on the heels of WW2. The war might’ve been avoided if this beat the Ugly Duckling at the Oscars, but as powerful as it is, it’s no match for the raw adorableness of a cute ass duck.
72. Mona Lisa Descending a Staircase (1992) | directed by Joan C. Gratz
Director Joan Gratz took eight years of planning and an additional two and a half years of filming to create Mona Lisa Descending a Staircase (it’s a Marcel Duchamp reference). It’s a short that feels like an entire college art class condensed into seven minutes. The film depicts the history of 20th-century art in a collage that takes famous paintings and breaks them apart and perfectly blends them into each other. How it recontextualizes the art by having it literally morph into the thing it inspired or was inspired by, is an idea brilliant enough to justify its inclusion but once you find out it was all made with clay, it moves past being a well executed idea and turns into a math problem. She made clay look like art, that she then destroyed to create new art. If that isn’t the perfect metaphor for what art truly is, I don’t know what is.
71. Bob’s Birthday (1994) | directed by David Fine, Alison Snowden
Much like the previously mentioned La Linea 1 (1971) and Nick Park’s Creature Comforts (1990), Bob’s Birthday became such a hit, the short acted as a defacto pilot for what would become the much beloved British-Canadian animated series Bob & Margaret. Based off of directors Alison Snowden and David Fine’s own life, Bob’s Birthday is a hilariously depressing, short about a dentist going through a mid-life crisis and the complications his wife goes through when she decides to throw a surprise 40th birthday party for him. The joke at the center of it might be old hat (he airs his grievances with his neighbors as, unbeknownst to him, they’re hiding in the room with him) but this is easily the best version of it.
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!