[The following is an entry in Pussy Goes Grrr's Short Animation Blogathon, running April 23-27.]
My first experience with short animation was, naturally, old Looney Tunes cartoons played in syndication on morning TV when I was growing up in the '90s. Yet it was through Pixar that I first got the chance to see shorts (either animated or live-action) on a big screen. I still remember the first of Pixar's theatrically attached shorts—Gen's Game, the loopy back-and-forth of an old man ferociously playing himself at chess in a park—better than the feature it accompanied, A Bug's Life. Though I was far, far too young to elucidate how the short's construction hooked me, the way its cuts and "angles" made the old player seem like two distinct people each formulating secret strategies against the other was riotous and thrilling. For the longest time, the lingering, nostalgic giddiness Gen's Game produced made it my favorite of the Pixar shorts.
Until Day & Night. Released 12 years after 1998's Gen's Game, Day & Night was the first Pixar short since that one to be superior to the film it supported. The difference is that the earlier film easily stood out against Pixar's sophomore slump. But Day & Night, that was attached to one of the studio's finest, the unexpectedly poignant, technically superfluous Toy Story 3. At six minutes long, Day & Night proves as much a technical achievement as the feature presentation, and its driving theme as simple and direct yet illuminating and intelligent as the themes of maturation and moving on in Toy Story 3.
True to the time limitations of the form, the short sets itself up quickly. Opening on the usual Pixar 3D animation of an idyllic field, the camera pulls back until it reveals this world as being the tightly contained view of a transparent being existing in 2D space against an infinite black void. Stumbling about in his morning routine, this being happens across someone just like him. Well, almost. Instead of showing an area basked in the morning sun, this other creature offers a window into night. Startled, the two soon engage in a hostile pissing match to demonstrate their superiority, each showing off what goes on at their respective times to impress and cow the other.
The thematic implications are obvious, and only more so as the shortened plot swiftly moves the two from antagonism to mutual admiration and cooperation. Capped off with an old lecture from Wayne Dyer about the importance of embracing the different, Day & Night makes a clear, direct argument for children that warns against xenophobia and just generally hating the unknown. But what makes the film truly masterful is how it's put together. The movement of the two beings in the 2D realm, as well as their moods and expressions, is demonstrated through objects and sounds captured within their portal bodies. For example, when Day wakes up to a rooster crow at the start, thunderclouds communicate the cracking of stiff joints and the sigh of pleasure he emits when he walks into the releasing rush of a waterfall is...well, guess. Even better is the integration of the outer 2D space with the 3D textures within, enhancing the texture of both levels. For a more in-depth account of how this looked in a theater with 3D glasses on, I direct you to Tim Brayton's simply magnificent contemporary review of the short, which he later named the best film of 2010.
Tim's review is so incredible that I'll pretty much stop here, unable to equal his piece, much less add to it. Even his title, "Hegel for Wee Folk," is brilliant, though it also offers perhaps the one area where I can object to him on any grounds. Though the use of 2D and 3D to illustrate the conflict between day and night certainly highlights Hegelian dialectic in several respects, the film's final moments, of the dualities of the two creatures reversing, move beyond Hegel into something more reminiscent of Levinas. When the two stand side by side, the sun setting in one and rising in another (complete with a brief meeting of the two semicircles at the midpoint of both bodies), the self and other invert and become irrelevant, fictitious projections that compel us not into the hatred cautioned against by Dyer but in the fundamental need for empathy as espoused by Levinas. Whether it owes more to Hegel or Levinas, though, Day & Night still broaches at least one of the most challenging philosophers in history, even as it presents a cogent, easily parsed out message for kids. It's one of the best short films I've ever seen.