Is there a more trusted brand name in entertainment than Pixar? The innovative animation studio debuted in 1995 with Toy Story, and has since released 13 feature films and collected 26 Academy Awards. Pixar has yet to make a bad movie, although they came perilously close with Cars 2. It's the only studio in the business whose very name is its best marketing tool.
Pixar Short Films Collection Volume 2, available this week in a two-disc DVD/Blu-ray combo pack and via digital download, collects 12 of the studio's recent short films along with commentary tracks and seven student films from star Pixar directors John Lasseter (Toy Story), Andrew Stanton (WALL-E) and Pete Docter (Monsters, Inc.).
Quite a few of these will be familiar to anyone who's seen a Pixar feature in the theaters the last few years. Of the many laudable traditions Pixar re-introduced to the cinemaplex in the 1990s was the exhibition of animated shorts before the feature presentation.
Probably the best short in this collection is the manic and very funny Presto, which screened before WALL-E in 2008. The five-minute bit is one brilliant sight gag after another as a Vaudeville-era magician tries in front of a packed opera house audience to wrangle an uncooperative rabbit out of his magic hat. It's classic flop-sweat physical comedy, heightened to marvelous absurdity.
The cartoon has the cleverness and energy of the best Looney Tunes shorts. And like those old gems, you can watch something like Presto over and over, just to admire the precision timing and comic flair. In fact, Pixar shorts are arguably even better since modern animation techniques allow for depth of detail that just wasn't possible 60 years ago.
Other shorts work as supplements to the feature films, playfully filling in the gaps from earlier stories. George & AJ, for instance, continues the saga of the two nursing home workers who attempt to evict Carl from his house in Up. Carl's helium balloon gambit has inspired the retirement community, it seems, and the old folks aren't going quietly anymore.
BURN-E follows a similar track with the story of a maintenance 'bot struggling in the wake of WALL-E's heroics. Hawaiian Vacation is a coda of sorts to Toy Story 3, advancing the plot line of Ken and Barbie's tentative romance.
Other highlights include the dreamy, delicate La Luna (paired with this year's Brave) and the meta-animation exercise Day & Night, which owes a good deal to Chuck Jones' Looney Tunes short Duck Amuck a work of pure genius, as far as I'm concerned. Less successful are the Cars spin-offs starring rusty hayseed Mater, one of Pixar's most undercooked characters.
The seven collected student films here are interesting mostly for their context, as you get to see the first creative pulses of these accomplished artists and storytellers. Each short is preceded by an optional intro from the creator, and it's interesting to hear their musings and remembrances about art school and lessons learned. “The stronger your content is, the more forgiving people will be about the animation,” concludes Stanton about his early work. These intros play like friendly little Behind the Music episodes (Behind the Toons?), only without the band breakups and nightmare descent into booze and pills.
With a collection of shorts like this, DVD/Blu-ray is your best bet if you're looking to buy. Volume 2 is available via digital download in standard and high-definition, but the included extras aren't always properly packaged with these digital bundles. Check the specs before you buy.
Also New This Week:
Speaking of Pixar, the studio's paean to Gaelic girl power, Brave, has also been released across all platforms this week, in various multi-disc sets with assorted extras.
Julie Delpy and Chris Rock headline the romantic comedy 2 Days in New York.
Rich people do the darndest things in the funny-slash-terrifying indie doc Queen of Versailles.
Ben Stiller and Vince Vaughn fight off an suburban alien invasion in The Watch.
Writer-director Todd Solondz (Welcome to the Dollhouse) is back with the comedy Dark Horse, starring Selma Blair, Christopher Walken and Mia Farrow.
This American Life, public radio's consistently excellent marquee program, performed and broadcast a two-hour live stage show earlier this year and delivered it directly to movie theaters via the industry's emerging digital network. The Invisible Made Visible is now available for downloading or streaming from thisamericanlife.org for $5, with proceeds going directly to the listener-supported program.
New to Blu-ray, My Big Fat Greek Wedding: 10th Anniversary Special Edition includes a half-hour retrospective with stars Nia Vardalos and John Corbett, a new commentary track from the director and actors, and new deleted scenes.
The documentary They Call It Myanmar: Lifting the Curtain provides a rare look inside the isolated country of Burma, thanks to a clandestine and dangerous three-year film project.