5 Pixar Short Films to Use in Secondary ELA

Pixar short films made their debut in the early 1980's as Disney made the transition into computer animation technology.  Appearing as introductions to feature length films, Disney Pixar shorts have become some of the most highly anticipated aspects of feature film releases.  These short films are excellent tools to use in secondary English Language Arts in grades 6-12 because of their concise platform for targeting literary (in form of a visual text) analysis through literary devices.  In this list, I have compiled some of my favorite Pixar animated short films that I use in my secondary classes alongside pieces of classic literature to spark thematic discussions as well as teach specific analytical skills.


This short film depicts the story of a unicycle that is tucked away in the back of a bicycle shop in the sale corner, marked 50% off.  The red unicycle has a dream that he does a circus show with a juggling clown, and the unicycle eventually takes over the show and performs the juggling act, finishing with a big applause. The unicycle is proud of himself, but then comes back to the reality of the bicycle shop and goes back to his sale corner once again.

ELA Application

Red’s Dream is a fascinating study of point of view.  The story is told from the point of view of a unicycle that dreams of being the star of the show rather than just a prop for a show. Students can use this short film as a springboard for discussing how point of view affects a story.  

Consider the following questions:

  • Who is telling the story?
  • How does the narrator’s point of view affect the events of the story?
  • How does the narrator feel about…?
  • What does the narrator feel is most important?
  • How would a different point of view affect the story?  In the case of Red’s Dream, how would the story be different if told from the perspective of a bicycle or the clown?
  • Based on the narrator’s perspective on life, what is the overall theme of the story?

Consider pairing Red’s Dream with pieces of literature that contain unique points of view such as The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon, The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka, Wicked by Gregory Maguire, “Contents of the Dead Man’s Pocket” by Jack Finney, “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” by James Thurber, “The Scarlet Ibis” by James Hurst, “The Cask of Amontillado” by Edgar Allan Poe, “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” by Mark Twain, and others.


Summary

This short film from Pixar depicts a chess match with a twist between an old man, but his opponent is himself.  The old man switches seats and sides of the table to play both turns, taking a pair of glasses on and off as he “changes characters.”  One of the players is clearly better than the other, and even though the old man is playing against himself, he reacts to each play with shock, terror, excitement, or joy—depending upon the play.  The game ends with a plot twist when the losing man plays a trick against the winning man by switching the board around, and the final laugh of the short film occurs when one man has to hand over a pair of dentures to the other old man as the winning prize.  

 

ELA Application

Geri’s Game is an excellent film to discuss characterization with your students.  Students can discuss the mental state of the old man—Is he senile?  Is he crazy?  Is he board with life?  Is he a creative thinker?  

It’s also an excellent film to discuss the concept of the plot twist.  There are three major plot twists of this short film that bring about the humorous aspects of the story.  The first plot twist occurs when it’s revealed that the old man is playing against himself.  That brings about the first audience chuckle.  The second plot twist occurs when the old man plays the trick against his “opponent” and switches the board around.  The third plot twist happens when the dentures are handed over as the “grand prize” for winning the game.  It’s as though these dentures have been a longstanding bet between the two “men,” and it’s implied through the old man’s mannerisms and gestures that he’s always wanted to win but has always lost against his "rival" chess "opponent."  

This brings about another interesting point of discussion:  subtext through action.  There isn’t a single line of dialogue spoken in this short film (except for a few grunts, gasps, and laughs).  But a relationship develops between the two sides of the old man based upon facial expressions, mannerisms, gestures, and the dynamic of their interaction.  Much can be assessed and implied about this man’s character based upon these actions alone.  

As a final point of discussion, students can talk about the overall thematic meaning of the film—Is this a film about the dual nature of man?  Is this a film about the senility of old age?  Is this a film about boredom in old age?  Is this a film about the id and the ego?  Students can debate the meaning of the film and substantiate their interpretations with evidence.


Summary

For the Birds depicts the story of a flock of birds that are sitting on a power line.  A much larger bird appears, but the other birds do not like him.  He joins them on the power line, weighing it down and causing it to bend.  The large bird falls but catches himself by the claws while the other birds peck at his claws, which causes the large bird to fall down.  This action causes the power line to shoot back upwards like a slingshot, throwing all of the birds into the air.  Feathers fill the air, and as the birds drop back to the ground one-by-one, we begin to see that each bird has lost its feathers due to the force of being flung into the air by the power line.  The large bird that they initially rejected gets the last and final laugh.

ELA Application

For the Birds is an excellent film for teaching situational and dramatic irony.  As the birds peck away at the large bird’s claws, we in the audience know that he will soon fall down, causing the power line to rebound upwards, shooting the other birds into the air.  It is also situational irony in that the flock of birds rejects the large bird, but the large bird is the one who ends up mocking them with a deep belly laugh at the end.  

Questions to consider for analyzing irony in For the Birds:

  • What is ironic about the story?
  • How does irony relate to the theme of the story?
  • How does irony create humor in the story—particularly in For the Birds?
  • How does dramatic irony create suspense?
for-the-birds pic2.jpg

Consider pairing For the Birds with pieces of literature that contain irony such as “The Ransom of Red Chief” and “The Gift of the Magi” by O’Henry, Shakespearean dramas such as Macbeth and Romeo and Juliet, “The Necklace” by Guy de Maupassant, “Story of an Hour” by Kate Chopin, “The Machine that Won the War,” by Isaac Asimov, “Trifles” by Susan Glaspell, “The Interlopers” by Saki, “The Blue Hotel” by Stephen Crane, “The Bet” by Anton Chekhov, “The Tell-Tale Heart,” “Richard Cory” by Edwin Arlington Robinson, and others.  


Summary

Lifted depicts a hilarious alien abduction gone awry in which a student alien attempts to navigate the controls of a spaceship in order to abduct a man.  Under the tutelage of a mentor alien who seems to be grading his student, the student alien fails to operate the controls successfully, so the mentor alien takes over, delivering a man safely back to his farmhouse.  The student alien then begins to cry because he failed at the controls, so the mentor, feeling bad, gives the controls back to his student, who then crashes the spaceship on top of the farmhouse where they've been practicing abduction skills.  As the spaceship flies away, the only thing left standing is the bed with the sleeping man, surrounded by a large crater made by the spaceship as it hit the ground.  The sidebar humor of the film is that the man in the farmhouse they are practicing to abduct never wakes up even though he gets repeatedly slammed into the walls and dropped on the ground.  This is my FAVORITE Pixar short film, and students will love it!

ELA Application

Lifted is an excellent film for teaching the elements of humor as created through irony, but it is also a great film to observe the dynamics of the archetypal mentor/ pupil relationship in which a mentor teaches a pupil the skills needed to accomplish his/her heroic task.  This relationship can be quite complex and full of tension and resentment (especially if the mentor figure is also a parental figure).  But it is a necessary relationship that enables the hero to fully realize his/her potential.

This archetypal relationship is popular among famous, well-known stories including Yoda/ Luke Skywalker (Star Wars), King Arthur/ Merlin (The Sword in the Stone & The Once and Future King by T.H. White), and Daniel/ Mr. Miagi (The Karate Kid).

Questions to guide discussion about the mentor/ pupil archetypal relationship in Lifted:

  • Characterize the mentor.  What are the character traits of the mentor?
  • Characterize the pupil.  What are the character traits of the pupil?
  • What is the nature of the mentor/pupil relationship?  Is it tense?  Friendly?  Formal?  Casual?  Easy?  Violent? Strained? etc.
  • How does the mentor influence the pupil’s actions?  How does the pupil influence the mentor’s actions?
  • How does the mentor/ pupil relationship inform the theme of the story?

This short film depicts three generations of a family—a boy, his father, and his grandfather. It begins with the three men rowing in a boat at night to go to work.  They stop to anchor the boat and give the young boy a hat like the same one they are wearing, but the father and grandfather fight over how the hat should be worn.  The boy mimics the same actions as the men, trying to be just like them.  Suddenly, the moon appears, and they raise a ladder, climbing and then floating to the surface of the moon. Once they arrive on the surface of the moon, they see that the moon is covered with stars.  The boy’s wonder and awe reveals that it is his first visit to the moon with his father and grandfather-- it is his first day taking on the job of his family's business. They begin to sweep the stars, but the father and grandfather disagree on how the stars should be swept.  They argue in front of the boy but stop when a large star crashes to the moon’s surface.  They work together to dislodge the giant star, and while the father and grandfather continue to argue about how it should be done, the boy figures out what to do his own way.  He climbs the giant star, taps it with a hammer, and it breaks into a huge bundle of tiny stars.  They sweep the stars up and climb back down to the rowboat once again in the light of the moon.

ELA Application

La Luna is a coming of age story, and students can compare/contrast this coming of age story (bildungsroman) to other such stories in this genre like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Great Expectations, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Outsiders, A Separate Peace, A Prayer for Owen Meany, Harry Potter, The Catcher in the Rye, Siddhartha, and others.

This is also an excellent film to discuss symbolism through the symbol of the stars.  It is quite purposeful that the film creators chose for the three generations of these men to sweep up stars and not simply trash.  Consider the following questions:

  • What do these stars represent?
  • What does the one large star represent?
  • How does the symbol of the stars reveal the characterization of the three different generations of men?
  • How do the film creators use symbolism to create an overall message?
  • What does the moon (la luna) symbolize in the film?   

This is one of my very favorite Pixar short films, and it really resonates with secondary students who can find themselves caught between the pressures to do things the way older familial generations do things and the way they want to do things-- that might even prove better.  This is the quintessential struggle of growing up and coming into one’s own—the quintessential coming of age story.  Ask students to reflect back on their own lives to contemplate if they’ve ever felt conflicted about meeting family expectations versus following their own paths.  Many students will have a lot to share on this topic!    


Which Pixar short films are your favorite?  Which ones resonate with your students?  Join the conversation in the comments below.

Meredith is the founder and creator of teachwriting.org and Bespoke ELA.  She has taught high school English for 10+ years in Dallas, Chicago, and New York City and holds a M.A. in Literature from Northwestern University.  She has always had a connection to the written word-- through songwriting, screenplay writing, and essay writing-- and she enjoys the process of teaching students how to express their ideas.  Meredith enjoys life with her husband, daughter, and sweet pups.