There are an awful lot of reasons to love Pixar, and most of them are pointed out pretty regularly. They make wonderful, original movies that send you into peals of laughter, bring you to tears, and put a huge smile on your face. Et cetera. Yet in spite of all the praise, I think there’s one thing for which Pixar doesn’t get quite enough credit. They love making short films, and have kept it up despite their extraordinary success with features. Very few directors, let alone entire studios, have that sort of passion. With “Cars 2” opening this weekend, it seems like a good time to take a look back at some of Pixar’s earliest work.
Most of us know the more recent shorts because they play right before each new feature in theaters. In fact, this is really the only time most American moviegoers encounter short film at all. Yet before “A Bug’s Life,” none of these fantastic little movies accompanied a Pixar feature into wide release. “Knick Knack” and the Oscar-nominated “Luxo Jr.” would later play in theaters with “Finding Nemo” and “Toy Story 2,” respectively. That leaves two films, which we’ll look at after the jump: “Red’s Dream” and “Tin Toy.”
They both have a bit of a bite, which could have impacted Pixar’s decision to use the lighter “Luxo Jr.” and “Knick Knack” with later features instead. “Red’s Dream” opens to some noir-inspired saxophone, zooming in on a bike shop where a lonely unicycle sits in the back, unwanted and on sale (50% off). The poor thing is rocking in its sleep, dreaming of the circus, juggling and thunderous applause. It’s got the classic Pixar trope of a little object upstaging a real living thing, in this case a circus clown. Yet in the end it’s still just a dream, and we come back to the lonely reality of the rainy city and the dusty sale corner where the unicycle sleeps.
“Tin Toy,” on the other hand, isn’t so much melancholy as it is ambiguous. Like “Red’s Dream,” it pits a large and ungainly human against an otherwise inanimate object. A large and intimidating baby is attacking some toys, terrifying a little tin one-man-band. It doesn’t take much to send the poor musician running for its life, fleeing from an infant that will inevitably toss the tin toy into its mouth. And while “Tin Toy” is more lighthearted and funny than the dream of that lonely unicycle, there’s still an edge to it. All the other toys are horrified as well, hiding under the furniture, and the climax of the short is almost unsatisfying. We’re left unsure how to feel about the baby, stuck between the adorable Pixar atmosphere and the scary world of these toys.
Both of these shorts are charming and put that Pixar smile on your face in spite of their somewhat less than perfectly rosy narratives. But the bite they have, the sadness of a lonely and rejected bike or the imperious presence of a terrifying baby add something more potent to the experience. The best Pixar films not only make you smile and laugh, but also think. Not that the travails of this little tin toy are necessarily going to inspire some sort of major intellectual discussion, but you’re left wondering exactly how to feel. This mix of emotions is the strength of these films, and the core of what would turn into the spectacular films we continue to love today. Check out the two films below: