Where Have The Pixar Short Films Gone?

Pixar To Layoff Roughly 14 Percent Of Its Workers
Pixar To Layoff Roughly 14 Percent Of Its Workers / Justin Sullivan/GettyImages

A Bug’s Life in 1998 began an exciting Pixar Animation Studios tradition. Starting with that bug-centric title, each of the companies movies was preceded by a short film. It was a fixture harkening back to the earliest days of Pixar, when the company’s artists cut their teeth making projects like Luxo Jr. and Tin Toy. New shorts like Geri’s Game, For the Birds, and Lifted carried on this tradition. Even after Disney purchased Pixar, short films like The Blue Umbrella and Sanjay’s Super Team were attached to every single one of the outfit’s productions.

Unfortunately, when Inside Out 2 debuts in theaters on June 14, there won’t be a new short film preceding this title. This might be seen as just a strange one-off anomaly under normal circumstances, but this is far from a strange exception. Inside Out 2 continues a trend that started with Toy Story 4 of Pixar abandoning the practice of making and showing original short films for their theatrical releases. Needless to say, that’s a phenomenon that must stop right now. Bring back those Pixar shorts!

The absence of these shorts is especially impactful given how long Pixar was committed to attaching new short films to its various motion pictures. Exempting the original Toy Story (which was preceded by The Adventures of Andre and Wally B. in some theaters) and Coco, each of the studios first 20 titles had a short film attached to it. Only twice did the studio resort to attaching older shorts Luxo Jr. and Knick Knack on Toy Story 2 and Finding Nemo, respectively. The company otherwise diligently gave room and resources to artists (often making their directorial debut) to craft new worlds through short cinema.

That tradition ground to a halt with Coco, which instead featured the 21-minute holiday special Olaf’s Frozen Adventure beforehand. That boondoggle initially seemed less like a sign of Pixar abandoning shorts and more of Disney trying some Yuletide-themed cross-marketing. Less than two years later, though, Toy Story 4 dropped into theaters without an original short film. Eight months later, Onward, at the last minute, did get a short film…but it was a Simpsons short entitled Playdate with Destiny. This featurette’s presence on Onward seemed more like an attempt to remind audiences Disney now owned 20th Century Fox rather than an exciting evolution of the Pixar shorts tradition.

Following Onward, the next three Pixar titles all went straight to Disney+, which meant there were no short films connected to Soul, Luca, and Turning Red (though Burrow was once set to precede Soul in theaters). While the first Walt Disney Animation Studios titles (Raya and the Last Dragon and Encanto) to return to theaters after COVID-19 had shorts attached to them, Pixar has largely eschewed theatrical short films. Elemental was preceded by the Up short film Carl’s Date, but it was initially conceived and created as a Disney+ program. Short films used to be an exciting fixture of seeing a Pixar movie on the big screen. Now they’re only attached to the studios movies if they can be used to promote larger Disney franchises like Up and Frozen.

The initial decline of theatrical Pixar short films appears to have been tied into the SparkShorts program on Disney+. Launching with the streamer's debut in November 2019, SparkShorts was a way for Pixar artists to make original stories inhabiting multiple kinds of animation styles within a short film format. This is where productions like Kitbull and Purl first debuted. The idea initially seems to have been that the SparkShorts program would feel even more special (and thus more enticing to potential Disney+ subscribers) if there was a sense of exclusivity to them. In other words, no shorts in theaters would provide less SparkShorts competition.

Initial ambitious plans for SparkShorts seem to have withered away, though. Only a single short has been released under the SparkShorts shingle since September 2021. SparkShorts may have hastened the decline of the Pixar shorts program, but it’s also likely been discarded as a tragic byproduct of the animation studios' cost-cutting measures in recent years. In June 2023, Pixar laid off 75 employees, the first significant elimination of its workforce in a decade. A year later, 14% of the company’s entire workforce was laid off (amounting to 175 employees). Additionally, over the last four years, two different CEOs (Bob Chapek and Bob Iger) have assumed control of Disney and constantly emphasized that every corner of the company must cut costs.

In the middle of all this belt-tightening, short films almost certainly hit the chopping block as an “expendable” aspect of Pixar’s culture. Meanwhile, ousted CEO Bob Chapek got a $20 million farewell paycheck while in 2023 Bob Iger took home $31 million in compensation. While these powerful figures took home disgustingly huge paychecks, an outlet for Pixar artists to break new technological and artistic ground inevitably could’ve been seen as “immaterial.” It’s always the interesting artistic outlets that suffer when times get tough, not the salaries for the bourgeoise.

The absence of short films in front of Pixar movies isn’t just a blow to tradition. It’s also a tragic loss for new filmmakers to hone their craft as directors. Individuals like Domee Shi, Peter Sohn, and Enrico Casarosa to hone their craft before directing feature-length movies. They were also welcome reminders of the value of an artform often dismissed by modern Hollywood. Short films are just as valuable as any other medium of cinematic experience. Because they’re not as easy to exploit for big box office as feature-length movies, shorts are typically ignored by studios. Pixar’s shorts like Lifted and For the Birds provide vibrant (and often hysterical) reminders of the power of short film storytelling.

Plus, removing short films from the theatrical screenings of Pixar titles is just another way big conglomerates like Disney are chipping away at all the fun flourishes that make big-screen experiences so exciting. Previously, a short film like Piper or Boundin’ provided an extra free treat for moviegoers. A ticket to a Pixar movie also got you a ticket to an addition short film, no extra fee required. Going to see new Pixar titles on the big screen felt extra exciting with that element, not to mention that it was a fun way to tie these releases to the oldest days of cinemagoing. Once upon a time, all movies came attached with short films. What was once an arcane relic used to be common courtesy for the latest Pixar releases as late as 2017 and 2018.

Unfortunately, that status quo has shifted. Now new Pixar shorts are buried behind a paywall and beneath an algorithm. They’re no longer a free bonus treat, they’re just something else you have to pay a monthly subscription to access in the modern pop culture landscape. As if that weren’t dystopic enough, the dearth of these shorts feels extra tragic given how sequel-heavy Pixar’s future feature film exploits look. A May 2024 Bloomberg profile on Pixar revealed the studio plans to devote a significant chunk of its upcoming slate to sequels in the future. More Finding Nemo and Incredibles follow-ups are on the horizon rather than risky original ideas like Coco and Turning Red.

In the past, even Pixar sequels like Monsters University and Cars 3 at least were preceded by fully original short films. Even in Pixar’s sequel-drenched 2010s, shorts could be a haven for original concepts like Bao. That haven looks to be wiped out just when audiences and artists need it most. The future looks quite stormy for Pixar Animation Studios on many fronts. The decline of short films at this outfit crystallizes many of those ominous woes plaguing the company. It’s time to bring back productions like Presto and For the Birds to the big screen…especially if we all must sit through an inevitable Cars 4 in our future.

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