The general consensus about Finding Dory is: That was cute, even if it wasn't quite as good as Finding Nemo. But the response to Piper, the animated short that precedes Pixar's latest, has been positively rapturous.
Not only is the six-minute movie adorable and clever, it's absolutely stunning to look at. Technological advancements are rarely so emotionally satisfying. But Piper is nothing if not innovative. In fact, that's the reason the short exists.
Director Alan Barillaro (who worked on Finding Nemo and Brave, among other Pixar movies) was inspired to create his protagonist after watching sandpipers while he was jogging along the beach in Northern California. He used the character Piper, a fluffy, fearful baby bird, as the star of some animation tests he was running.
"We learned long ago at Pixar that we always need a story to constrain those tests, and so hatched Piper," the director told the Telegraph.
Barillaro showed his mentor, Dory director Andrew Stanton, the new tools he'd created, which give Piper its photorealistic look. You can make out every feather and grain of sand - it's a little mind-boggling. Stanton was impressed with the tool, Barillaro told Entertainment Weekly, but he was even more excited by the character. So Barillaro gave his bird a story.
The wordless short follows a young bird who's forced by her mother to start collecting her own clams. Her first attempt is a disaster. A crashing wave leaves the little bird soaked and terrified (to the "awwww"s and giggles of the audience). She isn't too eager to return to the shoreline, but, with the help of a tiny hermit crab, Piper musters the courage to try again and even starts to enjoy the hunt.
Both in terms of story and animation, Piper is one of Pixar's strongest shorts in recent memory. It also cleverly subverts expectations when Piper's first collision with a wave doesn't separate her from her family. (The studio just loves to separate babies from their parents.)
The short has certainly been more universally embraced than Lava, which preceded Inside Out, and had a tendency to either annoy or delight audiences with little middle ground. Piper will no doubt be a contender at the Academy Awards, as many Pixar shorts are, and it's not hard to imagine Barillaro's film winning. That would be big: Despite nominations for Sanjay's Super Team, La Luna and Day & Night, among others, the studio hasn't won an Oscar for its shorts since 2001.