This story has been updated to include the recent Oscar winner “Bao.”
Though animation has been around since before the first Academy Awards, it wasn’t until the fifth Oscars ceremony, for films released between 1931–32, that the Academy created the Best Short Subject categories, including one for animation. At that point, every major studio had an animation wing producing cartoons for theaters, and these cartoons dominated the Oscars for almost the first 30 years. When the studios shuttered their animation departments in the early 1960s, independent and international filmmakers began to dominate category, a trend that reached its peak in the ’70s and ’80s. By the beginning of the 1990s, studios like Pixar, Aardman, and Blue Sky helped mainstream animation in the English-speaking world and brought a newfound legitimacy to the art form that had not been seen since the golden age of the ’40s and ’50s.
Hailing from more than 20 countries and encompassing almost every style, the 87 winners of the Best Animated Short Subject Oscar double as a microcosm of the history of world animation. Watching them also reveals that the definition of what constitutes animation has expanded from the colored cells of “Three Little Pigs” to the cutouts-on-acetate collage of “Frank Film.” What follows is an attempt to rank all 87 winners, from a recent dud to some timeless classics that help define the medium.
87. “Dear Basketball” (2017)
Every Oscar category has its Crash — the winner that makes you go, “What the hell were they thinking?” “Dear Basketball” is essentially a sappy, four-minute Nike commercial that had no business being nominated. Making matters worse, it gave accused sexual assaulter Kobe Bryant an Oscar at the first post-#MeToo ceremony. Although most nominees and winners are invited to join the Academy each year, Bryant was denied an invite due to his lack of a footprint in the industry, although the assault may have had something to do with it too.
86: “Logorama” (2009)
“Logorama” makes every building, person, and prop out of corporate logos. It’s cool to look at, but it makes its point after the first two minutes. The rest of it is an overblown action sequence with horrible dialogue and voice-over work.
85. “Sundae in New York” (1983)
In his 1983 essay “1,112 and Counting,” gay activist Larry Kramer accused then-New York mayor Ed Koch of allowing gay men to die of a disease that had recently been dubbed Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome, writing that he had “not allow[ed] himself to be perceived by the non-gay world as visibly helping us.” (That Koch was less-than-forthcoming about his own sexuality adds another layer to the story.) That same year, Jimmy Picker made this astoundingly tone-deaf Claymation short wherein Koch (voiced by an impressionist) improvises his own version of Kander & Ebb’s hit song “New York, New York.” By the time he won his Oscar, at least 200 more gay men had died from AIDS-related illnesses.
84. “Knighty Knight Bugs” (1958)
The only Bugs Bunny cartoon to get an Oscar, “Knighty Knight Bugs” is the animated equivalent of Al Pacino winning for Scent of a Woman instead of Dog Day Afternoon. Its mediocrity is especially egregious given that most of Bugs’s greatest films — including “What’s Opera Doc?,” regarded by some as the greatest cartoon of all time — weren’t even nominated.
83. “The Little Orphan” (1948)
In this Tom and Jerry short, Jerry adopts a starving orphan named Nibbles and treats him to a Thanksgiving feast, while he and Tom enact Pilgrim-Indian fights. The only thing worse than this cartoon’s racial and historical insensitivity is that it’s not funny.
82. “Frank Film” (1973)
This autobiographical film presents an unfolding collage of magazine cutouts glued onto acetate cells, while animator Frank Mouris tells his life story over dueling audio channels. Although considered an animation landmark, it’s a headache-inducing experience that’s too overwhelming to watch more than once.
81. “A Greek Tragedy” (1986)
This cartoon about three maidens holding up a building is a situation stretched out to six minutes. That same year, Pixar got its first nomination for “Luxo Jr.,” which, at only three minutes, tells a satisfying story about two lamps with distinct personalities.
80. “The Two Mouseketeers” (1951)
Tom, Jerry, and Nibbles engage in swordplay in 18th-century France. This short features some good music, but it’s one of the weaker cartoons in the series.
79. “Milky Way” (1940)
Disney’s eight-year winning streak broke this year when none of their cartoons received a nomination. The winner, “Milky Way,” is an MGM cartoon about three kittens produced by Rudolf Ising and Hugh Harman, animators who bounced around from studio to studio during the golden age of animation. Many of their cartoons, like this one, are as vapid and cutesy as “The Happy Little Elves” cartoons from The Simpsons. But they deserve a place in history for creating the MGM and Warners animation studios, which released the other two shorts nominated in 1940: “Puss Gets the Boot,” the debut film of Tom and Jerry, and “A Wild Hare,” which introduced the world to a rabbit who casually asked a hunter, “What’s up, doc?”
78. “The Fly” (1980)
This short offers an insubstantial jaunt from a fly’s point of view as it flies around a house.
77. “Surogat” (a.k.a. “Ersatz,” a.k.a. “The Substitute”) (1961)
The first completely foreign-made cartoon to win, this is a Yugoslavian short in which every prop, background, and person is inflatable. There are some cool moments when the protagonist manipulates the animation and changes the scenery, but on the whole, it’s just weird for weirdness’s sake.
76. “Three Orphan Kittens” (1935)
This Silly Symphony features cute Disney kittens getting in trouble. Nothing makes it stand out from similar Disney cartoons, nor does anything act as testing ground for new camera techniques or styles, which the later Silly Symphonies became during the ’30s. And it gets docked points for the racial stereotypes.
75. “The Pink Phink” (1964)
This marked the cartoon debut of the Pink Panther, the animated character who first appeared in the main titles of Blake Edwards’s 1963 film of the same name. Like the Panther’s other cartoons, this one suffers from repeating one joke over and over — the Panther paints everything pink while his foil wants to paint everything blue. That said, it’s always worth it to hear Henry Mancini’s theme music.
74. “Lend a Paw” (1941)
Mickey Mouse’s only appearance on this list, “Lend a Paw” mostly focuses on Pluto, who debates between his inner angel and devil whether to save a small kitten. The film, with its message to help friends in need, heavily foreshadows a conflict to come: Two months after its release, the United States entered the Second World War and Disney converted his studio into a propaganda factory.
73. “Is It Always Right to Be Right?” (1970)
Orson Welles narrates a parable about a world divided because everybody feels the need to be right. The animation and the music are bad, but the story is a good reminder of how we can better ourselves with a little humility.
72. “Magoo’s Puddle Jumper” (1956)
UPA’s Stephen Bosustow produced all three of 1956’s nominees, guaranteeing him an Oscar that night. Here, Mr. Magoo gets a car that defies the laws of gravity and can drive underwater. It’s typical Magoo fare, combining jokes about nearsightedness with the beauty of UPA’s animation.
71. “Leisure” (1976)
A recounting of man’s pursuit of leisure from caveman days to the present, “Leisure” features a cool mixed-media approach but it’s not very engaging.
70. “Great” (1975)
If you were confused when Kenneth Branagh came out at the 2012 Olympics Opening Ceremony looking like Abraham Lincoln, “Great” offers a musical biography about who he was actually playing: Isambard K. Brunel, the English equivalent of Thomas Edison. The songs are catchy, but it’s basically a Schoolhouse Rock video stretched to half an hour.
69. “The Tortoise and the Hare” (1934)
Max Hare, the star of this fairly standard retelling of the Aesop’s fable, has been cited by many as an inspiration for Bugs Bunny, who would turn this story on its head in “Tortoise Beats Hare.”
68. “The Country Cousin” (1936)
Another retelling of a fable, this time with the creatures who made the studio famous. It’s always weird watching Disney mice who look nothing like Mickey, so the animation takes some getting used to. The best part is the music, which alternates between country banjo and a Gershwin-like motif, to reflect the two characters.
67. “When Magoo Flew” (1954)
In 1949, UPA released a cartoon called “Ragtime Bear” which worried their distributor, Columbia Pictures, because bears were not popular characters. The film was a hit, not because of the bear, but because it was the debut of Mr. Magoo, a nearsighted old man who became UPA’s first breakout character. Magoo was one of the first human characters to have his own cartoon series, and it became a signature role for actor Jim Backus (who would later play millionaire Thurston Howell III on Gilligan’s Island). In this entry, Magoo mistakes an airplane for a movie theater and walks on top of it mid-flight. The jokes grow a little stale, but any UPA cartoon is worth watching for the animation, and the shots of Magoo’s silhouette walking on the plane are gorgeous.
66. “Winnie-the-Pooh and the Blustery Day” (1968)
The last of Walt Disney’s astonishing 26 Academy Awards came posthumously for the second of the studio’s three Winnie-the-Pooh cartoons. One of the final projects he green-lit, Disney chose to release these shorts one at a time to introduce the characters to American audiences — hard to believe, given how famous they have become. That said, the short reveals how the animation division was starting to go adrift without Walt’s presence, including recycling some old ideas. The Heffalumps and Woozles sequence is the best example of this, since it tries to copy the demented fantasia of Dumbo’s “Pink Elephants on Parade” number but fails to equal it. The best element of the cartoon is the voice acting, a reminder that several of the actors voiced these characters for more than 30 years.
65. “Yankee Doodle Mouse” (1943)
Tom and Jerry go at it, WWII style. Sticks of dynamite are tossed back and forth, Jerry uses a brassiere as a parachute, and the score offers an enjoyable mix of patriotic anthems.
64. “Father and Daughter” (2000)
Of the three nominees for 2000, “Father and Daughter” got all the accolades, and it’s easy to see why: It tugs at the heartstrings with a simple story of a little girl who spends her life waiting for her father to return after he abandons her. The second nominee was similarly bleak, an adaptation of Daniel Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year called “The Periwig Maker.” The third nominee, however, was Don Hertzfeldt’s “Rejected,” which went on to spawn countless internet memes and ridiculous catchphrases like “I am the queen of France!” As film fans know, the Oscars don’t necessarily predict which films will last.
63. “Manipulation” (1991)
The gags are funny and the special effects impressive in this short in which a cartoon man struggles to escape the sketchpad his animator has confined him to. Unfortunately, it can’t help but pale in comparison to the classic Looney Tunes cartoon “Duck Amuck,” which is The Godfather of fourth-wall-breaking, drawing-versus-animator cartoons.
62. “Flowers and Trees” (1931–32)
The first cartoon ever to win depicts a love triangle between two slender trees and an evil stump who starts a forest fire out of revenge. It features the usual dancing reeds, birds, and trees that appear in Disney’s early Silly Symphonies, and the animation is coarse compared to later Disney efforts. What makes “Flowers and Trees” a landmark, however, is that it is the first cartoon — and technically, the first film — ever produced in three-color Technicolor, the process that would later be used for Gone With the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, and many other films. As always, Disney knew what the audiences wanted before they did.
61. “Piper” (2016)
Pixar has just about owned the Best Animated Feature category since it was first introduced in 2001, but for the next 15 years they went home empty-handed for their shorts. “Piper,” about a cute young sandpiper overcoming her fear of the water, broke that losing streak, but it’s not one of their best. Still, it’s worth watching for the beautiful animation of the birds.
60. “A Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass Double Feature” (1966)
John Hubley’s Storyboard Studios won its third and final Oscar for this charming animated music video of two Herb Alpert songs: “Spanish Flea” and “Tijuana Taxi.” (More on Hubley and Storyboard below.)
59. “Ferdinand the Bull” (1938)
Nearly 70 years before Blue Sky’s feature about this good-natured bull, Disney made its own version. Although popular at the time of its release, it’s faded from the canon, probably because it never had follow-ups. The voice acting comes from Milt Kahl (one of Disney’s Nine Old Men) as Young Ferdinand, Jack Benny announcer Don Wilson serves the narrator, and Walt Disney himself plays Ferdinand’s Mother.
58. “Tin Toy” (1988)
When Steve Jobs acquired Pixar for their computers in 1986, he didn’t expect to make any money off its small animation division, and engineers wondered why the animators were even on the payroll at all given the company’s lack of revenue. In 1988, knowing they were on thin ice, John Lasseter and his team asked Jobs for $300,000 to make “Tin Toy,” a cartoon about a toy one-man-band named Tinny escaping the clutches of a toddler. Jobs agreed, and the film wowed audiences when it premiered, even though the animation hadn’t been completed. The next year, “Tin Toy” became the first computer-animated short to win the Oscar. The only reason this cartoon is not higher on the list is the animation — that baby is ugly, and in one shot where it falls over, it barely even touches the floor — but these problems are mostly due to the limitations of the technology. “Tin Toy” served its purpose, legitimizing computer animation as an art form, and convincing Jobs to keep funding the animation unit. In 1991, Lasseter wrote a treatment for a feature film about Tinny and a cowboy doll finding their way home. The title was Toy Story.
57. “The Crunch Bird” (1971)
56. “For the Birds” (2001)
At two minutes, “The Crunch Bird” is the shortest cartoon to win the Oscar, and “For the Birds” isn’t much longer. They’re both one-joke cartoons about birds, but they’re very funny jokes and they don’t overstay their welcome.
55. “Speedy Gonzales” (1955)
The official debut of everyone’s favorite Latino mouse, Speedy Gonzales brings cheese to the poor Mexican mice while getting the better of cheese factory guard Sylvester every time. In one absurd gag, he runs through Sylvester’s open mouth and exits through the back of his tail, the kind of gag that Warners directors like Tex Avery and Bob Clampett pioneered. While Speedy may strike some as a stereotype today, he has always been popular among Latinos, and a feature film where he will be voiced by comedian Eugenio Derbez is in development.
54. “It’s Tough to Be a Bird” (1969)
Ward Kimball became the only one of Disney’s Nine Old Men (his nickname for his nine favorite animators) to win an Oscar with this 20-minute history of birds, narrated by a bird drawn to resemble the great animator himself. Kimball, who drew most of the characters in Alice in Wonderland, was a master of zaniness, and he pulls out all the stops here. The film’s combination of animation and live action makes it the first mixed-media short to win, and it climaxes with a chaotic montage reminiscent of Terry Gilliam’s work on Monty Python — which, by sheer coincidence, premiered two months before “It’s Tough to Be a Bird” was released.
53. “The Box” (1967)
In a sweet cartoon about an old man with a mysterious box, the sparse setting, heavily percussive score, and final reveal add to the impact.
52. “Feast” (2014)
In a heartwarming story that becomes too sentimental in the final 30 seconds, a cute dog who loves eating unhealthy food reunites his owner with his girlfriend after she dumps him over his bad diet. But the dog is really cute.
51. “Mouse Trouble” (1944)
Tom gets a book of ways to trap mice and fails at all of them in a short that’s pretty much just a series of mishaps. But it also includes one of the best jokes in any Tom and Jerry cartoon, when a beaten-up Tom turns to the camera and says in a basso profundo voice, “Don’t you believe it!”
50. “Quiet, Please!” (1945)
“Quiet, Please!” does a great job at stacking the deck against Tom, who has to prevent Jerry from waking up Spike the dog. The best joke involves him catching lightbulbs Jerry tosses down before they can shatter on the floor, a joke that pays homage to W.C. Fields’s It’s a Gift, although the punch line is much more violent: Jerry plugs Tom’s tail into a socket and he lights up like a Christmas tree.
49. “La Maison en Petits Cubes” (“The House of Small Cubes”) (2008)
Japanese animation had never been recognized in this category until “La Maison en Petits Cubes,” the story of a fisherman in a flooded home who looks back on his life. The film takes on Proustian dimensions by using a smoking pipe as the catalyst for the old man’s memories, which come to life in beautiful drawings by animator Kunio Katō. When he got his Oscar, he brought down the house by ending his speech with “Domo arigato, Mr. Roboto!”
48. “Tango” (1982)
Except for the producers of La La Land, no one ever had a worse Oscar night than Zbigniew Rybczyński, the Polish director of “Tango” who spoke limited English. After silencing the orchestra who tried to play him and his translator off, he went outside to smoke a cigarette, Oscar still in hand, and left his ticket in the theater. When the security guard refused to let him back inside, he screamed, “American pig, I have Oscar!” and supposedly hit him, landing him in jail for the night. The film itself is a cool experiment where live-action characters repeat actions and movements in an impossibly large room, and more are added until it becomes like the stateroom in the Marx Brothers’ A Night at the Opera. You’ll want to watch it more than once to see how the characters overlap with each other.
47. “Mr. Hublot” (2013)
French steampunk artist Stephane Halleux provided the inspiration for “Mr. Hublot,” which brings his futuristic universe to life. The story is little more than your standard “man and dog friendship” tale, but the dog being a robot gives it a clever spin and the animation of the Blade Runner–like city looks spectacular.
46. “The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore” (2011)
Animator and children’s book author Bill Joyce co-directed this short about a man transported via tornado to a magical library with flying books. The animation reflects Joyce’s whimsical style, and there are some funny gags with the books, particularly when Lessmore has to perform surgery on one of them.
45. “The Lost Thing” (2010)
Narrated by songwriter Tim Minchin, “The Lost Thing” depicts a friendship between an awkward boy and a mysterious tentacled thing that looks like it wandered out of “Mr. Hublot.” It’s a touching story with a solid punch at the end, and the scene in the Department of Odds and Ends doubles as a nice homage to Terry Gilliam’s Brazil.
44. “A Close Shave” (1995)
Is there a single more expressive character in all of animation than Gromit, Wallace’s dog companion? With no mouth, he has to convey everything through his brow and his eyes, combining Chaplin’s warmth with Keaton’s deadpan. Here, he and Wallace uncover a plot to kidnap sheep and make them into pet food. As always, Gromit plays detective and action hero while the bumbling Wallace is just lucky to be along for the ride. The film also introduced audiences to Shaun the Sheep, who later got his own TV show and film series. The only trouble is that the half-hour running time works against the film, due largely to the overstuffed final action sequence where director Nick Park tries to top his efforts from the preceding Wallace and Gromit film. (More about that one later.)
43. “Johann Mouse” (1952)
In 1940, MGM animators William Hanna and Joseph Barbera teamed up a cat named Jasper and a mouse called Jinx in “Puss Gets the Boot,” but it didn’t leave much of a mark. A year later, they produced a follow-up film that redesigned the characters and renamed them Tom and Jerry. They became MGM’s breakout stars, and Hanna and Barbera would go on to make more than 100 cartoons with them, netting MGM 13 Oscar nominations and seven wins. The last was for “Johann Mouse,” wherein Tom and Jerry become a musical sensation in 1890s Vienna. There are some funny jokes involving Tom’s piano playing, and the music, performed by the MGM orchestra, is a reminder of how the old studios spared no expense on their cartoons. After MGM shuttered its animation unit in 1957, Hanna and Barbera set up their own company and went on to create The Flintstones, The Jetsons, Scooby-Doo, and dozens of other memorable TV cartoons. As with Disney, it all started with a mouse (and a cat).
42. “The Danish Poet” (2006)
Liv Ullmann narrates a touching story about how coincidence and chance shape one’s destiny, with a nice twist ending. She also plays all the characters, and her lilting tones help make this cartoon a lovely experience.
41. “Special Delivery” (1978)
A man’s refusal to clean the snow off his front porch leads to to the death of his mailman — and hilarity ensues. “Special Delivery” has just one purpose: to entertain, and it does so admirably.
40. “Toot, Whistle, Plunk and Boom” (1953)
Co-directed by “It’s Tough to Be a Bird” director Ward Kimball, “Toot, Whistle, Plunk and Boom” tells the history of music from cavemen to the present day. This entertaining cartoon was the first produced in Cinemascope, and its flat, stylized animation — which recalls UPA — is a radical departure from previous Disney films. Although the studio produced some inventive and entertaining short cartoons during the 1950s, by the end of that decade it had more or less given up on them, as the company moved into the black by diversifying into TV, live-action films, and theme parks.
39. “Quest” (1996)
This German student film depicts puppets traveling through various lands of sand, stone, and machinery to find the source of a mysterious dripping noise. The animation is extremely cool, especially in the backgrounds. The only trouble is the ending, which seems profound at first but feels a little too “student film” on second viewing.
38. “Closed Mondays” (1974)
Director Bob Gardner, the inventor of Claymation, spent 14 months with his filmmaking partner Will Vinton making this stop-motion film about a drunk who wanders into a museum after hours and finds the artwork coming to life: an abstract painting turns into a series of swirling musical notes; a slot machine with lips speaks abstract poetry; and a traditional painting of a scullery maid talks back to him. Unlike “The Critic” (to be discussed below), which scoffs at art, “Closed Mondays” speaks to its power to involve us through the emotions it conjures.
37. “Bao” (2018)
Domee Shi, a Chinese-Canadian immigrant, became the first woman to direct a Pixar short with “Bao.” She shared her Oscar with producer Becky Neiman-Cobb, making this the first animated short for which a female directing and producing team shared a prize. Shi based this heartwarming story of a mother who raises a dumpling from birth to adulthood on her own relationship with her overprotective mother. The use of food as a metaphor for parenting is specific to Chinese culture: Shi has said in interviews that Chinese parents substitute “Have you eaten yet?” for “I love you.” This specificity allows “Bao” to express universal truths about parents and children. Shortly before it premiered last summer, Pixar founder John Lasseter announced he would leave the company after he was outed for sexually harassing women and fostering a “boys club” mentality that kept female employees from rising through the ranks. Hopefully, “Bao” is a sign of things changing for the better, not just at Pixar, but throughout Hollywood itself.
36. “Paperman” (2012)
After dominating this category in its early years, Disney won its first Animated Short Oscar since “It’s Tough to Be a Bird” for “Paperman,” which is also the first (and so far only) black-and-white cartoon ever to win. The main character is an anonymous office clerk inspired by one spot of color — a woman’s red lipstick kiss on a piece of paper — to go after her, with papers piling up around him. The style and the lack of dialogue serve the story beautifully.
35. “Charade” (1984)
Have you ever played charades with your friends and gone nuts when they can’t guess what you’re miming? Charade takes this premise to a hilarious extreme, as the main character makes it obvious he’s miming titles like Jaws and Superman, but his friends’ guesses completely miss the mark. At the same time, one player becomes the first person in history to successfully mime The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Rotations, which the others get right away.
34. “Balance” (1989)
Like the best stop-motion films, “Balance” leaves viewers breathless, wondering how the animators did it. Set atop a floating platform in space, it depicts five identical men fishing for a rare device and causing the platform to tilt back and forth whenever they walk. It also inspired the finale of National Treasure: Book of Secrets.
33. “The Dot and the Line” (1965)
Chuck Jones won his only competitive Oscar for this adaptation of a book by Norton Juster about a male Line who seeks the love of a female Dot. The animation is unlike any of Jones’s Warners cartoons, echoing the work of abstract pioneer Oskar Fischinger, and the scenes where the Line morphs from two to three dimensions are beautifully done — all while Robert Morley provides humorous math puns in his dry voice.
32. “Crac!” (1981)
One of the greatest things about animation is the way it can imbue inanimate objects with emotions. In “Crac!” the protagonist is a rocking chair who begins his life when a French-Canadian farmer builds it from the wood of a tree. Over its life, it observes the farmer, his wife, and their family for generations. Like the opening montage of Up, the film collapses a century into a little less than 15 minutes, coming together harmoniously in the final moments, when the chair reflects on all it has seen in its final home, an art museum.
31. “The ChubbChubbs!” (2002)
Sony Animation won its first and (so far) only Oscar for this computer-animated sci-fi film about an alien janitor with dreams of being a karaoke singer who must face off with the menacing ChubbChubbs. The film is filled with inside jokes for sci-fi nerds, including cameos from Yoda, E.T., and Jar-Jar Binks — who dies in the opening two minutes. The twist at the end is great too.
30. “Moonbird” (1959)
UPA’s John Hubley was forced to go into TV commercials after he was blacklisted and thrown out of the company, but he found success producing the ad campaign for Maypo Oatmeal, which starred an animated child played by Hubley’s son Mark. Using the money from these ads, he and his wife Faith Hubley made “Moonbird,” a film based on a tape recording of Mark and his brother Ray playing together. Watching all these Oscar winners chronologically, “Moonbird” is a radical departure in style from any of the ones before it, going beyond the flatness of UPA to create characters based entirely on crudely drawn outlines. Its limitation is the fact that the two boys’ improvisation can’t help but lag at times, but it was a huge step forward for Hubley. A 1968 follow-up called “Windy Day” uses an improvisation by his two daughters, and is even better.
29: “A Christmas Carol” (1972)
This made-for-TV film of Charles Dickens’s most famous story was such a hit when it aired in 1971 that it received theatrical distribution the following year, allowing it to qualify for the Oscar (the rules were then changed to prevent this from happening again). It’s a quite effective adaptation, aided by Alistair Sim and Michael Hordern reprising their roles as Scrooge and Marley from the famous 1951 movie. Marley in particular is a standout — whenever he speaks, he just opens his mouth wide and unleashes the words with no lip movements. Bonus points for including the shriveled children representing Ignorance and Want, a powerful scene from the book cut from most adaptations. It’s only weakness is that at 25 minutes, it feels rushed, particularly when Scrooge changes his ways at the end.
28. “The Old Mill” (1937)
As production moved ahead on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Disney used his shorts to experiment with the technology he knew would make his first feature-length film stand out. The most famous of these is “The Old Mill,” the first animated cartoon to use the multiplane camera. This device placed a camera atop multiple planes of glass to provide a depth of field never before seen in animation. Just as he had embraced Technicolor before live-action filmmakers, Disney embraced deep-focus cinematography four years before Citizen Kane, making this short about animals weathering a bad storm look like it was shot by Kane cinematographer Gregg Toland, and the storm itself is one of the most suspenseful scenes in any cartoon.
27. “Tweetie Pie” (1947)
Director Friz Freleng threatened to quit Warner Bros. when producer Edward Selzer opposed his pairing of a bird named Tweety and a cat named Thomas (later renamed Sylvester), but “Tweetie Pie” would net Selzer and the Looney Tunes their first Oscar. The film showcases Freleng at his absolute best, with his virtuosic matching of action to music and absurdist gags. What made him a genius, however, was how he imbued his characters with moments of humanity amid the chaos, as when Sylvester throws his hammer on the ground after finishing a contraption. When asked why he included it, he just said, “Because it’s human.” Upon Selzer’s death, his Oscar was given to Freleng.
26. “Bob’s Birthday” (1994)
“Bob’s Birthday” introduced audiences to Bob and Margaret, the middle-aged British couple who got their own TV series in the late 1990s, and it’s the raunchiest cartoon to ever win. Bob, terrified of turning 40, comes home and rants about his fears to Margaret without realizing she’s planned a surprise party for him — and worse, that all the guests are listening from their hiding spots as he insults them and walks around with no pants on. The awkwardness of the situation and Bob’s callousness make this cartoon hard to watch, but there’s genuine tenderness between him and Margaret, and the conclusion, when she realizes it’s better just to be there for him, is touching.
25. “Bear Story” (2015)
Chilean director Gabriel Osorio made a haunting allegory of the Pinochet regime with this cartoon about a bear whose toy music box tells how he was kidnapped from his family and sold into the circus. The designs on the mechanical music box, and how they contrast with the bear’s world, are gorgeously rendered, and the story is a moving tale about the relationship between storytelling and trauma.
24. “Der Fuehrer’s Face” (1942)
Originally titled “Donald Duck in Nazi Land,” the most famous of Disney’s World War II cartoons depicts Donald Duck living under Hitler’s tyranny. His home, and most of the props, are shaped like swastikas, and he’s forced to work in a munitions factory where every time a photograph of the Fuehrer comes down the conveyor belt, he has to scream “Heil Hitler!” in his distinctive squawk. One of the rare Disney films that includes laugh-out-loud gags, it’s as entertaining today as it was 77 years ago, and features one of the most absurdist moments in Disney animation, when the shells come to life. The title song became a hit for Spike Jones and his band. (It loses points for insensitive drawings of the Japanese, however.)
23. “Birds Anonymous” (1957)
If there is a patron saint of cartoon voice-over it’s Mel Blanc, who, until his death in 1989, voiced almost all of the Looney Tunes characters. Here he plays Tweety, Sylvester, and a cat named Clarence who takes Sylvester to Birds Anonymous, AA for cats. His voices for Sylvester and Tweety are iconic, but it’s as Clarence that he really excels here, using a flat voice to give him the appearance of control even though he reverts to his old ways at the end. Blanc said this was his favorite cartoon, and, as with Freleng, after producer Edward Selzer’s death, Selzer’s Oscar was passed on to Blanc.
22. “Peter and the Wolf” (2007)
Literalizing Prokofiev’s famous piece, which is meant to live in the imagination of its listeners, is a tricky undertaking, but director Suzie Templeton’s approach in this half-hour film produces excellent results. Her adaptation makes several smart changes to the story by setting it in contemporary times, making the hunters into bullies who torment Peter, and establishing a dynamic between the title characters that leads to a satisfying and touching conclusion. The stop-motion animation seems to have influenced Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox and Isle of Dogs.
21. “For Scent-imental Reasons” (1949)
Edward Selzer, who once unironically barked to his animators, “I don’t see what laughter has to do with the making of animated cartoons!” told Chuck Jones that nobody would laugh at his amorous French skunk, Pepé Le Pew, but once again he was wrong. As in all his films, Pepé longs for Penelope Pussycat, whom he thinks is a skunk, but she wants nothing to do with him. This time, however, Penelope goes after him at the end, freaking him out. Bonus points for writer Michael Maltese’s hilarious faux-French dialogue.
20. “Munro” (1960)
“Munro” originated with a short story by Jules Feiffer, who turned 90 last month and has spent his career drawing cartoons, illustrating children’s books, and writing for stage and screen. The title character is a bratty 4-year-old boy who gets drafted into the army as punishment, but none of his superiors believe it because they’re convinced anyone who enlists must be motivated by the army’s “cause.” The savagery of the satire and the humor of the animation, modeled after Feiffer’s drawings, make this cartoon as funny as a Mark Twain story. Interestingly, this very American short was the first Oscar winner made outside the United States — the animation came from Gene Deitch’s studio in Prague, where he moved to receive financing and has lived for the past 60 years.
19. “Geri’s Game” (1997)
Most people were introduced to “Geri’s Game” when it played before A Bug’s Life in 1998, inaugurating Pixar’s tradition of showing one of their shorts before their features. It’s one of the studio’s funniest films, taking a simple concept — an old man playing chess with himself — and executing it perfectly. The best part is that the old man develops two distinct personae throughout the game — one needy and conniving, one cold and calculating — and their interactions make you think you’re watching two people instead of one. Geri cameos in Toy Story 2 as the repairman who sews Woody’s arm back on.
18. “Anna and Bella” (1985)
17. “Bunny” (1998)
“Anna and Bella” is a hand-drawn Danish short where two sisters look back on their lives and make peace over the heartbreaking way their friendship ended; “Bunny” is a battle between an elderly rabbit and a moth who won’t leave him alone. They’re tied here because they’re structurally quite similar: They begin as one thing and go someplace you don’t expect, leading to two of the most moving endings on this list. Tom Waits provides the soundtrack for “Bunny” and sings over the end credits.
16. “Every Child” (1979)
Producer Derek Lamb made “Every Child” in conjunction with UNICEF’s International Year of the Child campaign. The story of a baby passed from home to home could have been maudlin in the wrong hands, but Lamb brings humor to it to by having every voice, sound effect, and musical note performed by a male duo called Les Mimes Electriques. The short begins and ends with them in the recording studio, an image that acquires additional resonance when the child is finally adopted at the end by two old men.
15. “Harvie Krumpet” (2003)
Adam Elliot’s sympathy for the differently abled has always come through in his short films and his cult feature film Mary and Max. Like those, “Harvie Krumpet” combines a wry sense of humor with heartfelt drama to tell of a Polish émigré to Australia who never loses his optimism, despite the many setbacks that come his way. Funny without being ironic, and moving without being sentimental, Elliot never condescends to his characters or their situations. It’s the work of a true humanist.
14. “The Sand Castle” (1977)
Thin in story but rich in atmosphere, Co Hoedeman’s “The Sand Castle” depicts humanoid, serpentine creatures who rise from the sand, build a fortress, and watch it crumble as the winds sweep it away. The film is a haunting tribute to the impermanence of art, best summarized by Calvin and Hobbes creator Bill Watterson, who once drew a Michelangelo-inspired painting on the ceiling of his dorm knowing it would be erased by whoever lived there next year. “My fondest memories,” he said, “are [of] times like these, where things were done out of some inexplicable inner imperative, rather than because the work was demanded.”
13. “The Moon and the Son: An Imagined Conversation” (2005)
John Canemaker, an NYU professor and historian who has written authoritative books on animation, is the son of an Italian who spent five years in jail for (allegedly) burning down his hotel to collect the insurance money when John was a child. Ten years after his father’s death, he produced this “imagined conversation” between them with John Turturro as himself and Eli Wallach as the old man. Told through a collage of animation, live-action clips, and photographs, it tells a universal story about the necessary distance children must keep from their parents, and a father who, to paraphrase Philip Larkin, was “fucked up in [his] turn / By fools in old-style hats and coats.” It could have easily been a feature, especially with the stellar performances of Turturro and Wallach, but it’s a remarkable achievement at half an hour.
12. “Three Little Pigs” (1932–33)
Where to begin with the impact of the most popular cartoon short ever made? The fact that it was held over in theaters for months by popular demand? The legions of merchandise it spawned? The catchy hit song that inspired the title of one of the most famous American plays? Leave it to Chuck Jones, who said it was “the first time that anybody ever brought characters to life … who looked alike and acted differently.” This makes the short stand out from the standard Silly Symphonies because Fifer and Fiddler Pig are a fun-loving unit offset by their smart brother, Practical Pig. Separately, they get into trouble, but when they team up to outsmart the Big Bad Wolf, who dons a variety of unconvincing disguises to trap them (including a stereotypical Jewish peddler), they’re unstoppable. Bonus points for the morbid family photos in Practical Pig’s home of Uncle Earl (a football) and Father (sausage links.)
11. “Creature Comforts” (1990)
The short that launched a multiyear U.K. advertising campaign, Nick Park’s “Creature Comforts” takes street interviews with real English homeowners describing their living conditions, and puts them in the mouths of stop-motion animals. The juxtaposition of the human voices with the animals is hysterical, like the lion who speaks with a Brazilian accent about wanting more heat. Park’s ability to use eyes to convey emotions is unparalleled in stop-motion animation (see also, Gromit) and the deadpan, sullen looks he gives the animals only adds to the comedy.
10. “The Critic” (1963)
In 1962, Mel Brooks attended a screening of an abstract cartoon by animator Norman McLaren, where he heard an audience member mumbling sarcastic comments to himself. He then hired animator Ernest Pintoff to draw three minutes of abstract imagery, to which he recorded an improvised commentary as a 71-year-old audience member. As the images fly by, Brooks (then only 36) yells out things like, “It must be some kind of symbolism — I think it’s symbolic of junk!” and “Two dollars out the window, Murray!” At three minutes, it doesn’t overstay its welcome, but it’s also hard not to want more. Fortunately, we have more, in the landmark sketches, comedy routines, movies and musicals that Brooks has created throughout his 60-plus-year career in show business.
9. “Mona Lisa Descending a Staircase” (1992)
Joan Gratz’s film depicts the history of 20th-century art in seven minutes as famous paintings break apart and transform into each other, as when a Picasso of a nude girl in bed becomes Munch’s The Scream. By placing these and other works next to each other, Gratz reminds us how all artists influence one another, even when their work seems to have nothing in common. Even more astonishing is that the animation was achieved entirely through oil-based clay, which she spread on a vertical easel. The effects of her thumbprints molding the clay from frame to frame gives the paintings a living quality, similar to how King Kong’s fur appears to move in the 1933 film. It took Gratz eight years of planning and two and a half of filming, and you can see the effort.
8. “The Ugly Duckling” (1939)
In Danny Boyle’s Steve Jobs, Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak asks Jobs, who can’t design or code, what it is he actually does. Jobs replies, “Musicians play the instruments — I play the orchestra.” The same could be said of Walt Disney. He wasn’t a great animator; he didn’t “invent” sound or color cartoons; and he wasn’t the first person to make an animated feature film. But he understood how to use technology to its full extent; he was an expert judge of talent; and he had an impeccable knowledge of dramatic storytelling. “The Ugly Duckling,” the final Silly Symphony cartoon, is a remake of a 1931 cartoon that sticks closer to the Hans Christian Andersen story. Unlike that one, which was played mostly for laughs, this adaptation features one of the saddest scenes in the Disney canon, when the rejected duckling takes solace by playing with the one creature who will not judge him — a duck decoy. Disney once said, “The primary purpose of any of the fine arts is to arouse a purely emotional reaction in the viewer.” That may not be true of all art, but it’s certainly true for much of his.
7. “The Hole” (1962)
John Hubley was never shy about his liberal politics, and fused them with animation in this powerful 1962 film where two construction workers, voiced by character actor George Matthews and jazz artist Dizzy Gillespie, debate whether accidents are caused by human failings or karmic coincidence. Released the same year as the Cuban Missile Crisis, the short foreshadows films like Fail-Safe and Dr. Strangelove, and given the context of the civil-rights movement, also resonates as a conversation between a complacent white man and a person of color who can hear dog whistles. Considering that all of it was improvised, it’s remarkable that Matthews and Gillespie’s dialogue becomes as profound as that of the two tramps in Waiting for Godot. It’s an eternally relevant parable about the dangers of not listening closely to the warning signs around us.
6. “The Old Man and the Sea” (1999)
Despite Russia’s history of animation, no Russian animator ever won an Oscar until Aleksandr Petrov made this 20-minute adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s novel, producing what is possibly the finest screen adaptation of any of his books. He and his son spent two and a half years hand-painting 29,000 oil pastel frames on glass, shooting each of them with a special IMAX camera, and moving the paints with their hands in between shots. This style, reminiscent of the early-20th-century paintings of George Bellows, captures Hemingway’s masculine prose, particularly in the scene depicting the old man’s 24-hour arm-wrestling standoff where it looks like you can see the muscles tensing. It also captures his romanticism: The old man’s dreams of Africa are beautifully drawn, and Petrov departs from the novel by adding dream sequences where the protagonist swims and flies alongside his beloved fish. Denis L. Chartrand and Normand Roger provide the beautiful score.
5. “Ryan” (2004)
“We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are,” said Anaïs Nin. This quote cuts to the heart of “Ryan,” Chris Landreth’s documentary about Canadian animator Ryan Larkin, whose two short films, “Walking” and “Street Musique,” made him a rising star in ’70s animation. By the time they met in the early 2000s, Larkin had been living on the streets of Ottawa for more than 20 years, a victim of alcohol and drug addiction. Landreth worked for two and a half years on the film, recording interviews with Larkin and then working with a team of animators to depict the characters as oblong beings with holes in their bodies and faces that represent their psychological torment. When those wounds are touched on, spikes and colored lines emerge from their faces. What’s more, none of the people were drawn through motion-capture, an astonishing achievement given how realistic their movements are. Landreth’s film rescued Larkin from obscurity: Upon his death in 2007, he was working on his first animated film in more than 30 years, “Spare Change,” which was completed the following year by his collaborator Laurie Gordon.
4. “Gerald McBoing-Boing” (1950)
After leaving the Disney studios during the infamous 1941 strike, John Hubley, Steve Bosustow, and a group of young animators created United Productions of America, known as UPA. Although the studio produced work throughout much of the 1940s, they didn’t achieve mainstream recognition until they adapted the Dr. Seuss record “Gerald McBoing-Boing,” the story of a little boy who can only speak in sounds. Its success sent shock waves through the industry: Here was a radical departure from your typical animated cartoon, with no cute animals, no cartoon violence, and an intentionally unrealistic animation style. The film’s backgrounds flow seamlessly into each other (there are no walls), with locations changing only through props. Their color changes with the ups and downs of Gerald’s trajectory: When he’s happy, both he and the screen are bright yellow, but at his lowest point, dark blues and blacks dominate. The flat, limited animation allows for expressionistic camera angles, like the famous shot of Gerald walking up the stairs, inspired by Carol Reed’s The Fallen Idol. The short made UPA a force in the industry, and 70 years after its release, “Gerald McBoing-Boing” remains one of the most remarkable and influential cartoons ever produced.
3. “The Man Who Planted Trees” (1987)
Frédéric Back (who also directed “Crac!”) was a lifelong environmentalist who planted thousands of trees on his own property, which made him the perfect person to adapt Jean Giono’s short story, “The Man Who Planted Trees.” This powerful film tells of the friendship between a young man and a peasant farmer who has devoted his life to planting trees throughout his desolate homeland. Over 30 years and two World Wars, he remains undaunted in his mission to cultivate and nurture the French-Canadian countryside, astonishing government officials who never realize that all of this beauty comes from one man’s efforts. To achieve the film’s look, Back and his assistant, Lina Gagnon, sketched on matte acetate with colored pencils, adding in layers of shading as scenes blend from one to the other, using multiple exposures and no cuts. As in “Gerald McBoing-Boing,” the colors evolve with the trajectory of the landscape, from black, craggy lines to lush blues and greens. As an environmental parable, “The Man Who Planted Trees” never becomes preachy or bathetic; it’s a plaintive character study of a saint. Tolstoy would have loved it.
2. “The Cat Concerto” (1946)
Tom and Jerry’s finest outing has the duo at a piano recital where Tom, playing Liszt’s “Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2,” disturbs Jerry, who has made the piano his home. From there, they torment each other using every part of the instrument. Unlike many of their cartoons, this one is an even-handed battle: Tom gives just as good as he gets, and it’s funny to watch Jerry get smacked around over the keys. The jokes involving Tom’s fingers, especially when he attempts to play a tremolo while avoiding a mousetrap, will make any pianist sweat. Warner Bros. cartoons used the “Hungarian Rhapsody” numerous times — including in an uncannily similar cartoon called “Rhapsody Rabbit” with Bugs in the Tom role, that came out the same year. But with “The Cat Concerto,” MGM bested its rival, making this music inseparable from animation’s favorite cat and mouse team.
1. “The Wrong Trousers” (1993)
Nick Park’s follow-up to the first Wallace and Gromit film, 1989’s “A Grand Day Out,” is the best of the duo’s cartoons. “The Wrong Trousers” pits them against a villainous penguin, Feathers McGraw, who attempts to manipulate Wallace’s mechanical trousers to steal a rare jewel. Feathers’s dead-eyed, emotionless stare, combined with Gromit’s expressions, make for hysterical viewing as the penguin replaces him as Wallace’s companion. The gags come fast and furious, some of them subtle (Gromit reading “Pluto’s” Republic), some of them broad, as when Wallace goes on his first “walk” in the trousers and gets yanked all over the countryside.
If only for the hilarious gags and story, “The Wrong Trousers” would still be high on this list, but what puts it at the top is the two-minute climactic chase sequence where Wallace and Gromit go after Feathers on a mechanical train set that runs through their impossibly large home. David O. Russell studied it for the final action sequence in Three Kings, and Danny Boyle has called it “the best action sequence I’ve ever seen in a film.” It is truly one of the most remarkable scenes in all of animation: a triumph of editing, scoring, and sound design that proves animation can hold its own with live action.