YouTube is stuffed with “edgy” cartoons where the joke is that a famous character from pop culture is profane, sexualized, or some other “twist”. That’s fine, but it’s also good to have something that’s a different flavor for variety. Something to act as a little bit of sugar over a break, or to show the kids before their attention can wander.
10. Once Upon a Starfish
For the reader who’s still a little hesitant to open up to embracing adorable cartoons, we’ll start with one that’s got a little bit of an edge to it. This 2015 cartoon from Red Kite Studios manages a balance of being extremely sweet and precious but not being cloying by having the adorable character obliviously cause harm while trying to do good. It’s a great formula.
The story is that a girl, just after her birthday, sees a shooting star that looks like it’s fallen into the ocean. She goes down to the coast and sees a starfishhas just washed up. She comes to the only logical conclusion: the starfish is a fallen star that she has to return to the sky. When throwing it into the air doesn’t work, she tries tying a bunch of helium balloons to it. Fortunately those burst while the starfish is still fairly low to the ground. Then the girl notices another starfish wash ashore and then return to the waters, and realizes the fish’s proper place is back in the sea. It’s such a nice story that it more than makes up for the unpolished texture work and the rather odd way the starfish looks.
The graphics for this 2015 film by Kat Seale may look a little primitive to someone used to only seeing Pixar and Dreamworks films, but the character animation and heart in this video will never get dated. It’s especially impressive considering it was a student film for Bournemouth Arts University.
A young griffon in a world of miniscule flying islands is taking a bag of seeds to a particular patch of soil. The griffon spills the seeds and most of them fall into cracks between the bricks. One is still within reach, and the griffon plants that one in a pot in the middle of the island. It gets some water from a nearby fountain, but the bucket is not in good shape and leaks all the contents on the way over. When it tries again, this time it knows it has to rush, so it both ends up causing part of the fountain to collapse so that water starts leaking everywhere, and breaks the bucket before it can get a drop to the seed. Just as it’s about to lose heart, it notices that the water leaking from the fountain is draining into the cracks where most of the seeds fell and a beautiful grove of trees sprouts around the delighted griffon.
8. Hi Score
What Mary Elizabeth Whiting’s 2015 cartoon lacks in story logic and tension it more than makes up for in fun and energy. A girl is walking through the woods playing on her portable gaming device (it looks a lot like an old-fashioned gameboy) when she trips over a root and drops it. Somehow the gaming device touching a tree causes the tree to morph into something rendered more like an old-fashioned video game, and its now animated branches take the game away from her so that she has to go on a small adventure to retrieve it.
The camera angles and platforms are clearly meant to bring to mind a retro platformer game. When she reaches the end and has the option “Continue?” flashing on her video game screen, she looks past it to see how bright and fantastical the world beyond is. So she tosses the game over her shoulder and goes to seek an adventure beyond the small computer screen.
7. Of Mice and Moon
Some commenters found the voice acting in this film made for the Ringling College of Art and Design to be dodgy and unnecessary, but even with it David Brancato has created a wonderful animated video. A young mouse is drawing something when his father stops by and offers him a piece of cheese. The child says he wants cheese from the moon, showing that he was drawing him and his father riding in a rocket.
The father decides to indulge his son, and sets up an elaborate tableau (not easy considering he’s only a couple inches tall) involving building a toy rocket for them to ride in on a string pulley and putting a colander over a lightbulb to create a planetarium-style starfield. He and his son then land on a “moon” made of a wheel of cheese. A shot of the young mouse’s point of view of the cheese and stars is especially gorgeous.
6. Stellar Moves: The Story of Pluto
Millivette Gonzalez, Tabia Lees and Valerie Sattazahn’s cartoon has maybe the weirdest premise ever conceived for a short film that still manages to be very endearing. Basically it’s set in a universe where the solar bodies like Jupiter and Neptune are somehow pop entertainers with a TV show, and they have bodies like Mike Sully from Monsters Inc., but it’s played as if this were the most natural premise in the world. It helps that it’s gorgeous and fast-paced.
Pluto and his friend are watching a talent show hosted by the Sun, which has a contest coming up with the prize being membership in a boy band called the Planets. At his friend’s urging after he becomes jealous of the crush she has on pretty boy Earth, he practices a dance routine for the show. During the show, he impresses the judges and wins, but since it means he’ll have to abandon his friend (and it turns out Earth is kind of a jerk in real life) he decides to turn the job down.
5. Shark Tag
This toon from Moondog Studios is the shortest of all the films on this list. It also has the most manic energy of any of these which gives it an authentically childlike quality, for better or worse. A kid named Miles has a flying shark friend named Bob, and they’ve just been told it’s time to go to the seaquarium. Miles and Bob jump onto his bed and land in a fantasy ocean. They mess about with a variety of sea creatures such as a pair of crabs, an octopus, and a puffer fish that helps fire Miles out of a cannon.
Then we snap back to reality and see that in truth Miles brought his shark doll with him to the aquarium. We see him petting a real shark, and of course it’s completely disinterested in him as most animals would be. But the cartoon ends with a little wink from the Bob doll to remind us that there actually is magic in the world of this cartoon.
4. Adorable Couple
One of the most common complaints about Disney’s Mickey Mouse is that he became kind of boring. He’s so nice that these days he’s just bland, lacking either Donald Duck’s fury or Goofy’s boneheaded personality. This recent short cartoon addresses that by taking the character’s decency so far that it becomes ludicrous, and contrasts it with Donald’s grumpiness.
One day Mickey and Minnie are going about the town on a date, singing about how wonderful everything is, particularly their relationship. Then they see Donald and Daisy Duck sulking on a bench and literally singing “bicker bicker” at each other. Mickey and Minnie nose their way into the situation and basically try to force Donald and Daisy to cheer up. Inevitably all the attempts backfire because of course the Ducks don’t want to be forced into anything. So Mickey and Minnie decide to try to and meet them halfway by arguing in front of the Ducks and even that doesn’t work because the Mouses can’t pretend to be angry with each other very well. They come to an understanding when the two couples start arguing, and the Mouses finally seem to get that some people just enjoy being grumpy over always being overtly pleasant to each other.
3. Day of the Dead
This 2013 short film by a group of students called Whoo Kazoo brings to mind the Guillermo del Toro-produced cartoon Book of Life but it actually came out a year earlier. A little girl in Mexico is out mourning at the grave of her mother or another adult woman in her life. Then a magical blue flower instantly blooms. It takes her into a dark void except for a spotlight beam that she’s standing in.
Skeletons enter the beam too, but it turns out that one of them is the same person she was mourning. She takes the girl on a tour of the afterlife, revealing that it’s actually more like a big fiesta than anything you should pity someone for being sent to. The girl wakes up back in our world at the end, still with the blue flower and her spirits are greatly brightened by knowing that she has nothing to fear in the afterlife.
2. On the Same Page
Although the opening shots of this 2015 Ringling College of Art & Design student film bring to mind the 2010 Disney short Paperman, it goes in a completely different direction. A nerdy male journalist type is working in the news section of a newspaper, which is portrayed as a city where different portions of a newspaper are different areas with corresponding attributes, such as the weather area having buildings that represent the weather forecast for different days of the week (it’s raining in the Monday building, bright and sunny in the Tuesday building, etc.).
A woman from the comic section tries to get his attention to cheer him up, and to see what she wants he opens his window and out blows his latest report, which is that there is no news to report. In the process of recovering it, he loosens up a bit, eventually realizing that his report is less important than appreciating the beauty of the newspaper world that he was too busy writing about to notice.
1. Lily and the Snowman
Hornet Films is a very small company to be producing human characters on roughly the same level as Pixar and Dreamworks, but that’s precisely what this New York City studio did for this two minute 2015 film. A girl builds a snowman that comes to life in the light from her house. Using its very flexible stick hands, it projects shadow puppets on a fence well enough to captivate the girl until morning. Then it starts to melt. But instead of just letting it melt, the resourceful girl hides it in a barely used garage freezer to revisit it every year.
Every year, that is, until the distractions that come with growing up put the snowman out of mind. Decades later, Lily is at work one night when the light of a projector shines through a snow globe, bringing back to mind her frozen friend when she sees a silhouette on the wall. She goes to her old home, sees that the snowman is still in the freezer, and then has another shadow puppet show, this time sharing it with her own daughter. Some might get a sour taste in their mouth to learn that the movie is actually an ad for the Cineplex theater chain, but the skill with which it’s pulled off will make that the furthest thing from your mind while you watch it.