The resurgence of short films at the cinema

Will audiences be going to the cinema this summer to see short films, such as Toy Story: Hawaiian Vacation, rather than the main features, wonders James?

I find myself entwined in the very same feeling each time I visit the cinema in early spring. I’m sitting in there, waiting patiently for a film that I’m not that fussed about to flick onto the screen. To be honest, I’m probably only in there to keep out of the rain.

Then the trailers start and an animated lamp springs across the screen, making a little wheeze with every jump. And from that point, until I reach the depths of summer, I become a child. An impatient child, waiting to immerse myself in the colourful, majestic world of Pixar. Every year.

This year, however, I’m not so sure. I don’t doubt that Cars 2 will have its charms. But I never fell in love with the characters in Cars, and I’m not expecting my heart to flutter when they return, ripping through some spy-fuelled escapade. What I am excited about, however, is the quick return of Woody and Buzz. Just like every other child-teenager-adult, they’re my characters.

Pixar knows this. Well, I’m sure it doesn’t know exactly about my particular feelings, but it knows how attached the world is to the Toy Story franchise. And the characters are returning, twice this year, in two short films. Hawaiian Vacation will screen before Cars 2 this summer, with a second short due to be attached to Disney’s The Muppets in November.

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Both of these films, when they were announced, didn’t strike a chord with me. While a huge fan of Pixar, Cars 2 wasn’t a title that got me excited. For me, had no mystery and it immediately appeared in my mind as a slightly indulgent endeavour by John Lasseter, who seemed more attached to Cars than anyone else ever was. Either that or a scheme by Disney, who knew it could sell a thousand models of Lightning McQueen to every one cuddly Carl from Up.

In the space between 2006 and now, Cars merchandise has swarmed the Disney store. There were finally some bright, boy racer characters to stick on lunch boxes for the little gents.

And, as much as I loved the Muppets when I was seven, I was happy to leave them behind in my childhood, with the Power Rangers and Captain Planet. Yet, I won’t be surprised if I see both of these films on the first weekend of release, because of the Toy Story short films. And I do wonder if I’ll be the only one.

It appears that short films that may appeal to a wide range of people are being used as a tool to bring in the audiences for films that could go either way at the box office. Last year, some new CGI Looney Tunes shorts preceded The Legend Of Guardians: The Owls Of Ga’Hoole and Cats And Dogs 2. While the Looney Tunes characters are still instantly recognisable by children, they haven’t really been seen in cartoons for years. Rarely are they shown on TV, and the feature films gradually became less and less loved.

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Depending on your point of view, you could either argue that these brand new shorts were intending to reintroduce a new audience to the classic Looney Tunes characters, or to motivate a slightly older audience to take their children, nieces, nephews, or paperboy out to the cinema, so they themselves could see the characters that they grew up with. Either way, there were some established characters preceding a film that couldn’t count on decent box office takings.

Pixar regularly uses its short films to test out new creative techniques to see how effective they are. They’re often eye-catching, daring pieces of film. When the company started, it was the short films that outlined their vision as a production company.

Luxo Jr, the film that brought to life the lamp in Pixar’s logo, ended up being its mission statement back in 1986. Pixar wanted to bring sparking life to the mundane and normal. And do it in a way no-one had ever done before. And with every short that followed it, a new development in its technology was there to show off.

Tin Toy  was set in a much larger area than the shorts that preceded it, swinging the camera around the room and making one ugly baby look like a fleshy Godzilla, all from the perspective of a toy.

Geri’s Game showcased extreme close-ups of tumbling chess pieces, clothes that creased with the movement of limbs and a human who looked loveable, instead of being a freakishly scary baby. And much like that short, where Geri played himself at a game of chess, Pixar rushed back to make the next advance, with itself as its main opponent.

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More recently, in the excellent Day & Night (that was attached to the theatrical release of Toy Story 3) traditional hand-drawn animation was mixed with 3D CGI to spectacular effects.

Aside from how much each film developed visually, there was also a huge focus on story. Namely, giving anything heart. Before I started flooding the cinema within the first ten minutes of Up, my lip was quivering over a lonely cloud in Partly Cloudy. Yet, suddenly, the little innovative shorts are being put to one side to focus back on Toy Story.

It would be easy to assume that Pixar is taking a step back from its normal ethic, to revisit characters adored by audiences. It could always showcase new developments, but every piece of news reporting on it has so far suggested it’ll be a more straight-up affair. But it’s impossible to predict what Pixar’s intentions are, and even more impossible to assume what it’s going to actually produce.

Over the coming months, it’ll be interesting to see how or if these short films are advertised or promoted. While there was some media coverage and brief reviews (usually within the review of the feature film) of past short films, such as Day & Night, the average cinemagoer probably wasn’t aware of what the short film would contain.

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Will these new shorts have their own posters? I wouldn’t be surprised. Trailers are increasingly a given. Already exclusive pictures of the first Toy Story short have circled the Internet, whipping up media coverage effortlessly. But will it convince people to go to see films they didn’t intend on seeing?

The price of a cinema trip isn’t cheap, especially when you add on the extra cost of seeing a film in 3D. Big fans of Pixar (and there are many, many of them writing for this site) will most probably see Cars 2 anyway. But casual fans?

The shorts could well serve as at least a tipping point for the indecisive. Either way, I’m going to revisit Cars, and see if I can find a better reason for shelling out eleven pounds than to enjoy six minutes of Buzz Lightyear.


Recommended viewing:

Tin Toy (1989)

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Worth watching just to see where the idea for Toy Story originated, Pixar gives life to a small, cymbal-wielding toy soldier, as he desperately tries to cheer up a crying baby. The character was intended to appear in Toy Story, but the simple wind-up figure eventually became LED and battery-filled Buzz Lightyear.

Geri’s Game (1997)

A charming old man plays a speedy game of chess with himself, all over a pair of false teeth. With its classic French-sounding score, it, like many other Pixar endeavours, seemed classic and futuristic simultaneously.

Burn-E (2008)

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A bonus short that appeared on the DVD of Wall-E, Burn-E followed a little repairing robot who was locked out of a spaceship during the feature film. The short runs alongside Wall-E and EVE’s panic run through the ship. With each little frustrated buzz and bleep, it’s almost impossible not to adore this little machine.

Day & Night (2010)

Set on a black background, two hand-drawn characters have their bodies filled with gorgeous 3D landscapes, arguing over which is better, day or night. With the leads being silent, it harked back to classic shorts, and at the same time was a breathtaking step forward in visual technology.

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