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.
90. Ryan (2004) | directed by Chris Landreth
In 1968, director Ryan Larkin released the short Walking that was so ahead of the curve, it granted him immediate universal acclaim. He was nominated for an Oscar and was declared by Time magazine as “the Frank Zappa or George Harrison of animation.” Four years later, he released Street Musique, which further cemented his star status. He was on top of the world. Ten years after that, he was an alcoholic, a hardcore drug addict and homeless. Fellow animator Chris Landreth interviews him decades later and animates their conversations to amazing effect. His life story would’ve been enough but Landreth turns what could’ve been a by the numbers documentary, into a stunning work of art by visually representing how broken he and his subject are. It’s a one of a kind experience that shouldn’t be missed.
89. Dimensions of Dialogue (1983) | directed by Jan Svankmajer
The surrealist Czech animator once said, “I am interested in bringing life to everyday objects” and that statement is no more true than in his film Dimensions of Dialogue. Consisting of three segments, each involving shit you’d find around the house, the short, at first, looks like it’s just weird for weirdness sake but on closer inspection, it’s a brilliant metaphor for communication and how it inevitably breaks down between people. If you’re a fan of stop motion animation, the work of Svankmajer is essential with this being his finest hour.
88. Partly Cloudy (2009) | directed by Peter Sohn
Pixar must hire their animators from some seedy black market because they are less like animators and more like hitmen who expertly know how to assassinate your emotions. That’s a lot of shoe leather to say that they’re really good at hitting emotional beats that feel earned. Case in point: Partly Cloudy. An adorable short about a cloud who makes dangerous babies for a stork to deliver. Every ten seconds, there’s a new funny gag and without ever uttering a single word, it conveys delivers humour, warmth and emotion. They might be the titans of feature length animated movies but their short directors might be their secret weapon.
87. Quasi at the Quackadero (1976) | directed by Sally Cruikshank
One of the few shorts recognized by the National Film Registry as “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”, Quasi at the Quackadero is an insane amalgamation of Winsor McCay, the Fleischers and the film the Yellow Submarine (1968). Bursting with unique characters and an art style unlike anything before or since, Sally Cruikshank’s masterwork still remains one of the most copied, imitated and influential shorts ever.
86. Minnie the Moocher (1932) | directed by Dave Fleischer
While Walt Disney seemed intent on using public domain symphony pieces for his Mickey Mouse cartoons, Max Fleischer was getting some of the best jazz musicians in the business and he struck pay dirt when he acquired Calloway. Although only appearing in three of her cartoons (the other two being Snow White and the Old Man of the Mountain), it’s impossible to talk about Betty Boop without talking about Cab Calloway. His musical numbers, as well as his distinct dance moves, helped set Boop apart from the house of mouse and offered her more to do than just being a ditzy sex pot. Her look made her an icon, but his music gave her life.
85. Gerald McBoing-Boing (1950) | directed by Robert Cannon
For a brief window of time UPA was the most interesting animation studio in the world. In a time when Disney was perfecting what would become their patented formula, they were pushing the avant garde. Employing minimalist backgrounds with colors that tended to blend into each other, theirs was a distinct style that proved so popular, Disney itself couldn’t help but emulate for their short Toot, Whistle, Plunk and Boom (1953). Style might’ve separated them from the pack but it was this short that put them on the map. Based on a Dr. Seuss book, Gerald McBoing-Boing is a wildly imaginative tale about a boy who can only speak in sound effects. This was the first challenger to the house of mouse and it legitimately scared them.
84. Storytime (1968) | directed by Terry Gilliam
Before Monty Python’s Flying Circus, Terry Gilliam was just another animator making subversive art for the hell of it. But little did he know that his crude animation style would land him a gig with the most important comedy troupe ever, thus changing animation and comedy forever. Composed of three animated segments, Don the Cockroach, The Albert Einstein Story, and The Christmas Card, Storytime is a cacophony of madness and hilarity that would later help define Monty Python’s comedy years later. It changed everything.
83. Pas De Deux (1968) | directed by Norman McLaren
Breaking the conventions on what animation is or should be, McLaren obliterates the line between live action and animation to create a truly original work of art. He filmed dancers dressed in white performing against a black backdrop, then manipulated the reel with an optical printer to create, what can only be described as, a ballet of ghosts. The effect works magnificently. The stark monochrome, the fluid ballet and the pitch black background, mixed with a beautiful score, all come together to make the ballet, for the first time ever, interesting.
82. Superman (1941) | directed by Dave Fleischer
While some would argue the follow up– Superman and the Mechanical Monsters is superior due to its rip roaring action scenes, it can not be overstated how important the original short was. This was the first time anyone saw superhero in action. Decades ahead of its time, this short, along with the series that proceeded it, is still monumentally groundbreaking. The comics industry may not have survived if it wasn’t for this shorts popularity and honestly, do you really want to live in a world without superheroes?
81. Mémorable (2019) | Directed by Bruno Collet
A favorite topic among animators (and pretty much no one else), memory loss is almost the perfect subject matter. A clever director can come up with numerous was of depicting someone slowly losing control of their mental facilities, and an even better writer can ring as much dramatic pathos out of the subject matter as possible. In his new short Mémorable, Collet manages to do both. Objects are misidentified (he confuses a hairdryer for a gun, which makes his suicide attempt all the more heartbreaking), everyday items suddenly become foreign (his cellphone melts in front of his eyes) and his own wife becomes a stranger to him. This is what it’s like to deal with Alzheimer’s and it’s terrifying.
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!