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.

  1. Comedy
  2. Drama
  3. Experimental
  • “Duck Amuck” (Chuck Jones, 1953)

    What is it?
    The film in which meta meets mainstream, “Duck Amuck” is one of only two entries in our list that are actually about animation (see “La Linea 1” as well). It opens with Daffy Duck in musketeer gear, acting out a swashbuckling scene against a fairy-tale background. All of a sudden the landscape inexplicably vanishes, plunging Daffy into a string of conflicts with none other than the animator himself. Over six surreal minutes Daffy is erased, redrawn, dragged through all kinds of incongruous scenery and at one point physically assaulted by the edges of the frame.

    What’s so great about it?
    Warner Bros. maestro Chuck Jones’s stroke of genius was to introduce questions about the relationship between cinema and “reality”—normally the preserve of beardy theoreticians—into a wildly entertaining short featuring one of the studio’s best-loved characters. Proof that experimental cinema doesn’t have to be boring.

  • “Pas de Deux” (Norman McLaren, 1968)

    What is it?
    Norman McLaren’s “Pas de Deux,” justly regarded as the Scottish artist’s best work for the prolific National Film Board of Canada, stands majestically at the frontier between live action and animation. McLaren filmed dancers dressed in white performing against a black backdrop, then manipulated the reel with an optical printer to create trippy, almost stroboscopic visual effects.

    What’s so great about it?
    It all comes together beautifully: the stark monochrome, the fluid ballet, the illusion of infinite space, the orchestral chords that seem to go on forever… McLaren was a restless experimenter who dabbled in all kinds of techniques across his lengthy career, but never did he produce animation as moving and as graceful as this.

  • “La Linea 1” (Osvaldo Cavandoli, 1971)

    What is it?
    Initially commissioned, in a bold stroke of PR innovation, as an ad for Lagostina kitchenware (nope, we don’t quite get it either), “La Linea 1” tracks a gibberish-spouting humanoid outline as he walks along a straight line of which he is a part. When he encounters obstacles, he mouths off at the animator, who quickly intervenes with his giant pencil. The film was a hit and spawned a long-running series.

    What’s so great about it?
    It may not look like much, but “La Linea 1” packs more imagination and wacky humor into its meager running time than many feature films manage in two hours. As with “Duck Amuck,” the film draws attention to its own artificiality in an entertaining way, coming on like a knowing cross between a piece of Pop Art and an episode of Pingu (whose lead character was voiced by the same actor). If you like it, there are 89 more episodes in store.

  • “Damon the Mower” (George Dunning, 1972)

    What is it?
    Lined paper lies on a tabletop. Across its surface, sketches inspired by Andrew Marvell’s poem “The Mower’s Song” come alive. The verse was initially supposed to be read out by a narrator, but Dunning dispensed with the voiceover in postproduction.

    What’s so great about it?
    Before he was hired to direct the trippy love-it-or-hate-it Beatles film Yellow Submarine, Dunning was a big player on the avant-garde animation scene. Fortunately, his big-budget escapades did nothing to straighten his experimental bent. The evidence: this lovely short, too rarely seen today but groundbreaking in its time. Dunning translates Marvell’s poem about a lovelorn mower into simplified, almost abstract graphics, leaving us with the bare bones of the animator’s art: pencil lines crawling across paper. The effect is mezmerising.

  • “Dimensions of Dialogue” (Jan Švankmajer, 1982)

    What is it?
    “I am interested in bringing life to everyday objects,” said Jan Švankmajer. In “Dimensions of Dialogue,” said objects include rulers, books, thimbles, toothbrushes and slabs of unidentified meat. The surrealist Czech animator avoids conventional storytelling in favor of three gloriously bonkers sketches that explore the sheer materiality of everyday objects to comic effect, whether by shaping them into fragile Arcimboldo-esque busts or substituting them for words in the mouths of monstrous clay heads.

    What’s so great about it?
    Virtuosic technique aside, Švankmajer’s films are remarkable for the way in which they imbue inoffensive tools with a nightmarish sense—“animation” in the truest sense of the word. “Dimensions of Dialogue” is arguably the most expressive of the lot. Terry Gilliam would agree, having cited it as one of his favorite animations of all time. Once you’ve seen it, no object will ever seem dull again.

  • “Jumping” (Osamu Tezuka, 1984)

    What is it?
    We adopt the first-person viewpoint of a young kid who discovers that he can jump seriously high. He starts off bouncing around his neighborhood, but before long he’s embarked on a hopscotch tour of the world, witnessing industrialization and wars in full swing, before literally going to Hell and back.

    What’s so great about it?
    Beloved in his native Japan but overshadowed by Studio Ghibli elsewhere, cartoonist, animator, activist and medical doctor (yes, really) Osamu Tezuka is responsible for some of the most playful and innovative anime ever made. Exhibit A: this marvelous episode of his “13 Experimental Films” series. The political subtext is strong—without wanting to stretch the metaphor too far, the film could be seen as a comment on the social dislocation felt by many Japanese after the collapse of fascism. The cartoonish graphics, meanwhile, mask some very sophisticated experiments with perspective (with no CGI to fall back on!). Little surprise that “Jumping” hopped to awards glory all over the globe.

  • “Street of Crocodiles” (the Brothers Quay, 1986)

    What is it?
    The Brothers Quay may be British-based Americans from a blue-collar background, but the DNA of “Street of Crocodiles” is all Eastern European. The memoirs of Polish writer Bruno Schulz provide the source material, but the film doesn’t interpret the text literally, opting instead to convey Schulz’s sense of industrial desolation via vivid metaphor. A mute puppet wanders through a somber, derelict building where machines are a menace and human contact is absent. The film forgoes straightforward narrative in favor of a sequence of sketches that seek to illustrate the futility of life.

    What’s so great about it?
    Granted, the Quays’ films aren’t a barrel of laughs. Theirs is an absurdist world, where humanoid puppets flail their limbs in vain, inanimate objects arbitrarily come to life, and nobody ever smiles. Like their heroes, Jirí Trnka and Jan Švankmajer, the brothers employ sophisticated puppetry (not to mention a singular meat fetish) to paint a picture of chaos and impotence in the face of authority. Highly respected in Britain and the U.S., they stand at the crossroads between Western and Soviet animation—watch this, then the video for Nine Inch Nails’ “Closer,” to get a measure of their influence. “Street of Crocodiles,” though a difficult watch, is their most captivating work.

  • “Revolver” (Jonas Odell, Stig Bergqvist, Marti Ekstrand and Lars Ohlson; 1993)

    What is it?
    Over eight nightmarish minutes, the viewer is treated to a series of looped sketches that feature an array of eerie creatures and portentous symbolism: revolving hourglasses, clowns doing unspeakable things with their faces, Dali-esque clock-crabs scuttling across a lunar landscape. Intertitles boldly announce calendar years—1798, 1954—yet scenes recur without any chronology, and everyone looks like they’re from the future. Don’t come here looking for a strong plot.

    What’s so great about it?
    Play this to a political prisoner on repeat and you won’t need any other forms of torture. While that may not sound like much of a recommendation, the fact is that “Revolver” uses surrealist imagery and sound design to more disquieting effect than perhaps any other animated short. The film teases the viewer: Is it a comment on the slippery nature of time? Dadaist experimentation in full-on mischief mode? The worst acid trip ever committed to celluloid? In any case, “Revolver” has enough to keep the critics busy for decades. A mesmeric animation, which puts the mental firmly back in experimental.

  • “Fell in Love with a Girl” (Michel Gondry, 2002)

    What is it?
    The music video for the White Stripes’ song of the same name, which brings the band to life by means of LEGO bricks in stop-motion. Scenes of Jack and Meg White strumming, drumming and cycling are interspersed with bursts of abstract color.

    What’s so great about it?
    Forget The LEGO Movie—these two joyous minutes are the toy bricks’ most memorable cinematic outing. When the Stripes asked Michel Gondry to direct a video for their single (by accident—they were actually looking for Mark Romanek), the French filmmaker responded by displaying the kind of visual ingenuity that he’d revisit in his later features (notably Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind). The visuals couldn’t fit the song better, the bright, pixelated animation serving as a perfect counterpart to the fuzzy rock & roll. LEGO initially refused to strike a marketing deal with the band; when they realized how popular the video had become and changed their minds, Jack reportedly told them where to shove their bricks.

  • “The Man with No Shadow” (Georges Schwizgebel, 2004)

    What is it?
    A mysterious besuited protagonist turns his back on the civilized world and trades his shadow for the promise of romantic adventure. He journeys through fairy-tale castles, empty De Chirico–esque cityscapes and an Arabian desert, ever tormented by the silhouettes that surround him.

    What’s so great about it?
    Tour de force, when applied to most films, is a cliché. In the case of “The Man with No Shadow”, it’s spot-on. For starters, the film is quite literally a tour—a trip around the world refracted through a dark fantasy lens. Animation is rarely thought of in terms of camerawork, yet here the “camera” certainly draws attention to itself, roving forcefully around the action. It all plays a bit like a cartoon film noir, though any attempt to describe it only detracts from its stunning originality.

“Duck Amuck” (Chuck Jones, 1953)

What is it?
The film in which meta meets mainstream, “Duck Amuck” is one of only two entries in our list that are actually about animation (see “La Linea 1” as well). It opens with Daffy Duck in musketeer gear, acting out a swashbuckling scene against a fairy-tale background. All of a sudden the landscape inexplicably vanishes, plunging Daffy into a string of conflicts with none other than the animator himself. Over six surreal minutes Daffy is erased, redrawn, dragged through all kinds of incongruous scenery and at one point physically assaulted by the edges of the frame.

What’s so great about it?
Warner Bros. maestro Chuck Jones’s stroke of genius was to introduce questions about the relationship between cinema and “reality”—normally the preserve of beardy theoreticians—into a wildly entertaining short featuring one of the studio’s best-loved characters. Proof that experimental cinema doesn’t have to be boring.

  1. Comedy
  2. Drama
  3. Experimental

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