The 30 best animated short films ever made

It’s not all about Disney or Studio Ghibli. Or length. Some of the most inventive animation can be found in short films

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For many, animation is a world of cute animals, sarcastic ogres, CGI heroes and exotic Japanese creatures—a world governed by a handful of big studios and the occasional European auteur who’s made it big. But to hardcore animation fans, this is only part of the story.

The time and cost involved in producing an entire feature film means that many of the world’s most respected, talented and imaginative animators simply never have the chance to do so, so it’s in the world of the short film that they must grow their reputation and develop their art. The result is that some of the most funny, entertaining, technically groundbreaking animated movies are never seen by the wider public—until now. Here’s our selection of the 30 best animated short films ever made.

  • “Where Is Mama?” (Te Wei, 1960)

    What is it?
    On the surface, this is a film about a cloud of tadpoles looking for their mommy frog, encountering a colorful cast of aquatic creatures on the way. Unsurprisingly, given that it was produced in Mao’s China, it doubles as a lesson on the virtues of civic cooperation and state protection.

    What’s so great about it?
    Perhaps more than any other film on this list, “Where Is Mama?” is a product of its time and place: The cloyingly chirpy female voiceover and transparent agitprop represent the worst tendencies of Maoist art, and the line about having to protect all plants from pests is guaranteed to raise an eyebrow. And yet, thanks to Te Wei’s firm grasp on Chinese artistic traditions (especially the watercolor technique of painter Qi Baishi), the film manages to transcend its political context. Turn off the sound and admire the exquisite animation—it contradicts the notion that Mao’s regime sounded the death knell for great art.

  • “The Hand” (Jirí Trnka, 1965)

    What is it?
    In “The Hand”, Czech animator Jirí Trnka’s last and greatest work, state repression of the artist is literally depicted as a giant gloved hand (the inspiration behind the final boss in Super Smash Bros.?) incessantly harassing a hapless sculptor, eventually driving him to suicide.

    What’s so great about it?
    Trnka has been called “the Walt Disney of Eastern Europe” on account of his huge influence on Soviet animation. The similarities end there—it’s unlikely that Disney ever had to dodge malicious state censors—but there’s no denying Trnka’s impact on generations of animators including Jan Švankmajer, whose satirical humor and use of puppets clearly owe much to his predecessor. “The Hand” represents animation at its most playful, and filmmaking at its most bitter.

  • “The Street” (Caroline Leaf, 1976)

    What is it?
    “The summer my grandmother was supposed to die—or, as my mother said, ‘pass away’—we didn’t leave the city.” From this pithy opening line, “The Street”—an adaptation of Mordecai Richler’s short story—unfolds as a quiet study of death in a close-knit Canadian Jewish community. The tragedy is alleviated by the kids’ breezy reactions and a good dose of wry humor.

    What’s so great about it?
    Bambi’s mother isn’t the only death in animation, and by confronting this most grave of subjects with wit and sincerity, Caroline Leaf’s masterpiece is another reminder that animation can tackle serious themes with all the maturity of live action. Together with Aleksandr Petrov’s “The Old Man and the Sea,” it’s also a supreme example of the notoriously tricky paint-on-glass technique, and a marvelous exercise in color to boot—all tea-brown hues, with the odd splash of orange. Chalk up another for the National Film Board of Canada, whose films feature heavily on this list.

  • “Tale of Tales” (Yuri Norstein, 1979)

    What is it?
    Returning to his favorite theme of how we experience our own memories, especially those of childhood, Russian filmmaker Yuri Norstein ties together events from his past into an impressionistic autobiographical collage. We witness the outbreak of war and the abuses of Norstein’s alcoholic father, while other chapters defy straightforward interpretation.

    What’s so great about it?
    As a bang-on Simpsons sequence once illustrated, there’s an enduring stereotype of Soviet animation as abstract and infuriatingly obtuse. On first viewing, “Tale of Tales” does nothing to dispel that—Norstein’s film, concerned above all with the structure of memory, is narratively incoherent and soaked in symbolism. Yet its universal themes ensure that it strikes a deep chord with anyone who watches it: This is a film that has topped countless polls, and it inspired British animation expert Clare Kitson to learn Russian so that she could write a book about it. It’s a puzzling, hauntingly beautiful work, sadly still awaiting a follow-up (Norstein, now in his seventies and a notorious perfectionist, has been at work on an adaptation of Gogol’s “The Overcoat” since 1981).

  • “The Black Dog” (Alison de Vere, 1987)

    What is it?
    Telling the story of a mysterious hound who guides a girl through a dreamlike journey of self-discovery, “The Black Dog” is partly an exercise in mythological references and religious symbolism. Yet it is also imparts a deeply personal spiritual conviction.

    What’s so great about it?
    There was a time when British TV’s Channel 4 stood for more than stomach-churning reality programming, and when British animation was among the best in the world. De Vere represented both these trends. “The Black Dog,” commissioned by the channel, draws together everything that distinguishes her remarkable work: profound existential questions, a deft surrealist touch and a staggering work ethic (she made the 19-minute film pretty much single-handedly, with little access to professional equipment, while caring for her senile mother). It established her as the best female auteur-animator in Britain—an accolade that’s gone more or less uncontested since her passing in 2001.

  • “The Man Who Planted Trees” (Frédéric Back, 1987)

    What is it?
    An adaptation of a Jean Giono short story, “The Man Who Planted Trees” tells the tale of a solitary shepherd’s attempt to single-handedly reforest a desolate valley in the Alps. The simple allegory of man’s desire for immortality is told in Frédéric Back’s signature impressionist style, in which consecutive scenes morph into one another in place of conventional editing.

    What’s so great about it?
    When Isao Takahata (Grave of the Fireflies) finished his latest feature in December 2013, his first move was to screen it for Back—and not a moment too soon, for days later the Canadian master passed away. The anecdote illustrates the high esteem in which he was held by the animation community. “The Man Who Planted Trees” is his masterpiece, a poll-topper that hoovered up awards (including an Oscar) upon its release. Just as the shepherd’s spirit lives on in the forest, Back’s reputation is sealed with this most tender of films.

  • “The Village” (Mark Baker, 1993)

    What is it?
    Ants cooperate with each other while humans lie, bicker and steal. This is the underlying message of Mark Baker’s misanthropic masterpiece, which narrates the goings-on of an isolated village in England. Two villagers try to conduct an affair, but are frustrated by the interference of their nosy neighbors. Suspicion turns to fighting, and eventually murder.

    What’s so great about it?
    “The Village” is singled out as an exemplar of British animation’s ’90s golden age, and it isn’t hard to see why—this is social commentary at its funniest and most sly. Against the unchanging backdrop of the village church, the characters engage in all kinds of sinful behavior, from theft to adultery. Even the vicar is a drunk. The village”s enclosed layout, which Baker based on the design of the Globe Theatre, makes it all the more suffocating. The film never rams its satire down your throat. Instead, it offers a dose of understated British humor. Darkly brilliant.

  • “The Old Man and the Sea” (Aleksandr Petrov, 1999)

    What is it?
    If at times “The Old Man and the Sea” looks like an animated version of those lame megabudget nature documentaries they used to show at IMAX theaters, that’s partly because it is an IMAX film—the first animation to be shown on that huge screen, in fact. Intended as a showpiece for the then-new technology, the film plays Hemingway’s much-loved story very safe; it borders on schmaltz in places, and the voice acting is as wooden as the walls of the old man’s cabin.

    What’s so great about it?
    The animation is staggering—simple as that. Russian animator Aleksandr Petrov is one of the few artists to have mastered the paint-on-glass technique (see also Caroline Leaf’s “The Street”), and here he deploys it to its full expressive potential, alternating between realist animal portraits and impressionistic dream sequences with spine-tingling proficiency. The arm-wrestling scene is one of the most beautifully lit sequences in all animation.

  • “When the Day Breaks” (Amanda Forbis and Wendy Tilby, 1999)

    What is it?
    An accidental death provokes a quiet existential crisis among the citizens of a nameless metropolis in this beautiful exploration of urban alienation. Somehow, the fact that everyone is an animal makes it a whole lot more poignant (we’re reminded of Spike Jonze’s video for Daft Punk’s “Da Funk”).

    What’s so great about it?
    “When the Day Breaks” is an illustration of the wonders that can result when innovative techniques are used to create a retro aesthetic. Canadian duo Amanda Forbis and Wendy Tilby go for the textured-newsreel look by drawing directly onto photocopies; this renders a soft, grainy style quite unlike any other. Yet there’s more to the film than nifty visual effects. It’s also a meditation on the irony of the modern city, where everybody is connected yet nobody talks to one another—hardly typical subject matter for an animated short. Other than via fine renditions of 1930s ballads, the characters don’t speak; nonetheless, the shots of empty chairs and midnight trains speak volumes.

  • “Father and Daughter” (Michael Dudok de Wit, 2000)

    What is it?
    Michael Dudok de Wit’s Oscar-winning short uses a monochrome palette and eight dialogue-free minutes to tell a story that could fill a feature film. A father and his young daughter cycle together across the Dutch flats, before he abruptly bids her farewell by the sea and rows off into the distance, never to return. Yet as the girl grows up and eventually mellows into old age, she continues to return to the place where they separated in the hope that she’ll see him again.

    What’s so great about it?
    The film’s main achievement is to convey a lifetime of yearning by means of a simple, affecting cyclical story. The daughter’s visits to the shore come around again and again, like the turning of her wheels and the waltz of the theme music. Decades pass. Yet—as the ambiguous ending suggests—time comes full circle, and death is not an ending. For once, the adjective Zen is appropriate—the influence of Japanese painting on Dudok de Wit’s brushstrokes is undeniable. (Full disclosure: Michael Dudok de Wit is the author’s father.)

“Where Is Mama?” (Te Wei, 1960)

What is it?
On the surface, this is a film about a cloud of tadpoles looking for their mommy frog, encountering a colorful cast of aquatic creatures on the way. Unsurprisingly, given that it was produced in Mao’s China, it doubles as a lesson on the virtues of civic cooperation and state protection.

What’s so great about it?
Perhaps more than any other film on this list, “Where Is Mama?” is a product of its time and place: The cloyingly chirpy female voiceover and transparent agitprop represent the worst tendencies of Maoist art, and the line about having to protect all plants from pests is guaranteed to raise an eyebrow. And yet, thanks to Te Wei’s firm grasp on Chinese artistic traditions (especially the watercolor technique of painter Qi Baishi), the film manages to transcend its political context. Turn off the sound and admire the exquisite animation—it contradicts the notion that Mao’s regime sounded the death knell for great art.

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