PIXAR SHORT FILMS COLLECTION: VOL. 2 – Blu-ray review

If Pixar has become a victim of its own success, you could use the “Pixar Short Films Collection: Vol. 2” as Exhibit A to show that the studio has become more commercial—even before they hooked up with Disney.

Just about all of the animated shorts on the “Pixar Short Films Collection: Vol. 1” were new to Blu-ray and stand-alone films. But almost all of the films on this second collection have been included as bonus features on previous Disney-Pixar releases, and quite a few of them are linked to major features. Call them “mini-sequels,” and Pixar Canada, where many of the short features are made, plans to continue to create “franchise” shorts the way that Disney and Warner Bros. did with their most successful properties. Seven of the 12 films have feature-film tie-ins and obvious commercial motivation: one of them is a “Ratatouille” short, one is a “WALL-E” spin-off short, one is an “Up” short, one is a “Toy Story” entire-gang short, one is a “Cars” spin-off . . . or rather “fly-off,” one is a Buzz Lightyear adventure from the “Toy Story” films,  and there’s a second Mater’s Tall Tales entry.

On the one hand, you could say that Pixar is becoming institutionalized and doing what every other studio is doing; on the other, you could say that this bunch, which has a cultivated reputation for marching to their own drummers, is losing its way.

On the other hand, it takes money to make films, and commercial successes finance the experiments. Actors take on commercial projects so they can have the luxury of spending time on an indie flick that interests them. Why not studios?

So yes, it’s possible to have it both ways, and that’s what Pixar does with this volume of animated shorts.

Let’s take the commercial properties first:

“Your Friend the Rat” is a throwback to the old Ludwig von Drake instructional cartoons, where a character stands in front of a chalk board and lectures part of the time. This one takes us though a short “history” of the rat that feels more like an old “Rocky and Bullwinkle” history from Aesop. It’s one of the longest shorts on this disc, and, frankly, one of the least successful. Occasional sight gags add humor, but for the most part it’s as dry as a lecture . . . and it already appears on your “Ratatouille” Blu-ray.

“BURN-E” is obviously from the same galaxy (and mindset) as “WALL-E,” who was WALL-E’s sidekick aboard the Axiom. This one is an expansion of a scene in the film showing BURN-E at work trying to make a repair to the exterior of the spaceship. Appearing earlier on your “WALL-E” Blu-ray, it’s humorous enough.

“Dug’s Special Mission” takes the dog that defects to the good guys in “Up” and shows him assigned to guard duty on his birthday by the dog bullies (a Doberman pinscher, a Rotweiller, and a bulldog). It was released previously on the “Up” Blu-ray. Dug is an endearing character, and he makes this one work.

“Hawaiian Vacation” was included on the “Cars 2” Blu-ray. It’s a fun mini-sequel in which all the gang (including Barbie and Ken) pack for a Hawaiian vacation . . . in another room in the house. As with the other feature-related shorts, if you like the feature, you’ll like the mini-feature. It’s just plain fun watching the animation.

“Air Mater” was also a bonus feature on the “Cars 2” Blu-ray, and an obvious bridge animated short between “Cars” and the new Pixar film, “Planes.” It’s part of the “Mater’s Tall Tales” series, and though it’s one of the shorter films it’s also one of the more entertaining of the mini-sequels.

“Small Fry” finds Buzz Lightyear visiting a fast food restaurant, only to have a tiny duplicate Buzz Happy Meal toy try to convince the other “Toy Story” characters that he’s the real Buzz. I don’t recall this one having appeared on a previous release, but I could be wrong. It’s another strong entry in the mini-sequel department.

“Time Travel Mater” features Mater going back in time with Lightning McQueen in a “Back to the Future” variant, trying to make sure that Stanley gets to Radiator Springs and hooks up with Lizzie. It’s a little far-fetched, but so was that Michael J. Fox movie. Also a strong entry.

As for the stand-alone shorts:

“Presto” is a nearly silent short involving a magician and his rabbit, who tries to get a much-deserved carrot and turns more and more vengeful when the magician resists. It’s quirky and manages to survive almost entirely on sight gags, as in the days of old cartoons. People may remember it as a “WALL-E” bonus feature. It’s one of the best shorts on this collection.

“Partly Cloudy” is also one of my favorite Pixar shorts. It takes the 1950s cliché of storks delivering babies and milks it for laughs, with clouds somehow providing the babies for the stork carriers and one particular cloud getting all the difficult baby creature assignments (like a shark, or a crocodile). Ouch. This one appeared on the “Up” Blu-ray.

“Day & Night” takes to the anthropomorphic skies again, this time with a personified sun and moon getting jealous of each other. I seem to recall this one appearing as a bonus feature on the “Toy Story 3” release.

“George & A.J.” feels like a pre-visualization sequence from a scene in “Up” that didn’t make the final cut. Not really animated, it’s an anomaly in a collection that otherwise is polished and fully animated. Were they really that hard up for a 12th short feature to include here?

“La Luna” was one of the shorts that was recently included on the “Brave” Blu-ray release. In this charming little adventure a boy and his grandfather go out on the sea to watch the moon and to (naw, you’ll get no spoilers from me). It’s one of the better shorts in this collection.

Video:
The video is, as you’d expect, striking. Well, except for that rough pre-viz segment. Look for strong black levels and edge delineation, and richly saturated colors. There’s also a nice sense of depth in most of these. And I saw no problems with the AVC/MPEG-4 transfer to a 50 GB disc.

Audio:
The audio is all over the map. At the high end, “La Luna” and “Small Fry” feature an English Dolby TrueHD 7.1 soundtrack, while “Hawaiian Vacation” has an English DTS-HD MA 7.1 and “Day & Night an English DTS-HD HR 7.1. “Time Travel Mater” and “Air Mater” have English Dolby TrueHD 5.1 tracks, while the rest are English Dolby Digital 5.1.

As if that’s not confusing enough, some of them also have audio options. The following have Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1 options: “Your Friend the Rat,” “BURN-E,” “Dug’s Special Mission,” “Day & Night,” “Hawaiian Vacation,” “Air Mater,” “Small Fry,” and “Time Travel Mater.” Meanwhile, there are French Dolby Digital 5.1 options for “Your Friend the Rat,” “Dug’s Special Mission,” “Day & Night,” “Hawaiian Vacation,” “Air Mater,” “Small Fry,” and “Time Travel Mater.”

“Hawaiian Vacation” is the Cadillac of sound on this volume, with the rest solid but unspectacular. As you’d expect, the 7.1 soundtracks are more dynamic, but all of them offer clear and resonant audio.

Extras:
This is a combo pack, so it comes with a DVD.

Disney “Fast Play” was designed for children too young to do much more than click on one familiar icon and then the whole shebang plays, previews and all. Note that clicking on Fast Play is the only way to “play all” of these short films.

The most enticing bonus features are seven short student films from John Lasseter, Pete Docter, and Andrew Stanton, who offer an introduction for each. From Lasseter we get “Nitemare” and “Lady and the Lamp”; from Docter there’s “Winter,” “Palm Springs,” and “Next Door”; and from Stanton there’s “Somewhere in the Arctic” and “A Story.” They’re of value, of course, as a comparative Point A to wherever you think Pixar is on the animation map now.

Also of interest are the 12 commentaries provided, one for each of the films. What comes across in all of them is the passion and enthusiasm that the Pixar people feel for their work and their projects.

Bottom line:
So what if many of these appeared elsewhere or if more than half of them are commercial? It’s nice to have them easily accessed in one place, and this collection proves that Pixar can have it both ways, artistically and commercially.

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