Toy Story 4 will be the first Pixar movie since the original Toy Story in 1995 to not be accompanied in theaters by an animated short film. Ever since Pixar paired the Oscar-winning Geri's Game with the theatrical release of A Bug's Life, shorts have been a beloved part of the Pixar movie-going experience. Well, for the most part.
Some sources are speculating the decision not to place a short in front of Toy Story 4 might have something to do with the overwhelming negative response to Olaf's Frozen Adventure, which was paired in 2017 with Coco. That was an unusual situation in that, unlike the previous shorts, Olaf's Frozen Adventure was neither a Pixar production nor particularly "short." The inclusion of a 21-minute Frozen spinoff intended as a TV special suggested a lack of confidence in selling the original movie without a recognizable bonus attraction. That backfired, with audiences loving Coco and hating the Frozen short, which received only "limited release."
Pixar's next feature, Incredibles 2, opened with a more traditional eight-minute Pixar short, Bao, which earned a well-deserved Oscar. Yet it wasn't without audience complaints. Social media was ablaze with people saying the short "made no sense," seemingly missing that the "weird" part of the short (the sentient dumpling) was a dream about the main character's strained relationship with her son. In addition to poor story comprehension, racist responses to Pixar's first short about a Chinese-Canadian family also played a part in the Bao backlash.
At their best, with the likes of Day and Night, Piper and, yes, Bao, Pixar's shorts are among the highlights of the movie-going experience. Such shorts used to be commonplace from the 1930s to the 1950s, the Golden Age of animation. Pixar brought back a dead tradition, and used it as an opportunity to develop fresh artistic talent. On the occasions one of Pixar's shorts turned out disappointing (Lava, which played in front of Inside Out, received mixed reviews), at least they were brief ... which is why the length of Olaf's Frozen Adventure was such an issue.
Pixar's program inspired Walt Disney Animation Studios to start making short films again. The Oscar-winning likes of Paperman (which played before Wreck-It Ralph) and Feast (which played before Big Hero 6) are, honestly, better than the features they preceded. Disney's most recent animated film, Ralph Breaks the Internet, didn't play with a short. If Frozen 2 debuts in November unaccompanied by a short, it might start to look like an ominous sign that the days of the theatrical animated short are dying once more.
Yet even as Pixar opens its first short-free theatrical release in 23 years, studio is making more shorts than ever before. The studio is only streaming them instead of releasing them in theaters. Pixar's SparkShorts program has been in the works since 2017, and this year started releasing these new "experimental" shorts. The feminist parable Purl, the robot adventure Smash and Grab and the tear-jerking animal story Kitbull were posted on YouTube. Three more shorts, Float, Loop and Wind, will premiere on the Disney+, set to launch Nov. 12. Disney Animation has also announced a similar shorts program, debuting next year on the streaming service.
Although billed as "experimental," the SparkShorts are still very much of the mainstream-friendly storytelling style of past Pixar shorts, just with a bit more artistic freedom. They're free to target more adult audiences (Purl's salty language and Kitbull's realistic themes of abuse would be too much to play in front of Toy Story 4), and use different animation techniques (Kitbull is hand-drawn, and Smash and Grab uses motion capture). The SparkShorts also feature more diversity, both behind the scenes (most of the directors are women or people of color) and on-screen (Loop is said to feature Pixar's first autistic protagonist).
Disney and Pixar aren't the only animation studios whose short film futures might be primarily in the streaming world. Animation historian Jerry Beck has claimed that Warner Bros.' 200 new Looney Tunes Cartoons shorts will be hosted primarily on Warner Media's future streaming platform, with only a couple likely to see a theatrical release for Oscar consideration.
We look forward to seeing new animated shorts wherever they're released, and if streaming allows studios like Pixar to release more shorts of the same high quality we're used to, that's wonderful. Even so, it would be sad if we have to say goodbye to Pixar's 20 year tradition of playing shorts in theaters.
Directed by Josh Cooley, Toy Story 4 stars Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Joan Cusack, Keanu Reeves, Annie Potts, Don Rickles, Estelle Harris, Wallace Shawn, John Ratzenberger, Jeff Pidgeon, Blake Clark, Keegan-Michael Key, Jordan Peele and Tony Hale. The film opens Friday nationwide.