the best pixar shorts for teaching plot elements

Year after year when it’s time for teaching plot elements, I reevaluate my approach to ensure students are engaged enough to gain the necessary comprehension. And year after year, there’s one thing that seems to consistently ring true: Pixar Shorts.

When teaching plot elements, Pixar shorts have a magical way of keeping things fresh, engaging students, and making that “formula-learning” a bit more Mary Poppins-like (you know the spoonful of sugar that helps the medicine go down!). Choosing dialogue-free films makes the stories accessible. And with the magic of Pixar, the animation is top-notch, and the stories are clever in a way that is sure to capture even our most hesitant learners.

Why Teaching Plot Elements Matters

I know I’m preaching to the choir, but teaching plot elements is a necessity. It’s a formula that’s useful in ELA because it opens the door to deeper analysis later. 

Many short stories can be categorized and understood through their smaller parts. This predictability of the individual parts means there is something for students to focus on, particularly when a story can be challenging. Once the story’s basic plot is clear, students can dive deeper into analysis related to character development or theme development, plus a whole host of other ELA-focused concepts.

Teaching Plot Elements

When teaching elements of plot, whether using Pixar shorts or not, I always start by making sure my students are clear on the six elements. With a clear mini-lesson on the plot diagram, students get a thorough preview before we focus on a particular text.

the six elements of plot structure
  1. Exposition – This is the first part of the plot that introduces background information and sets up the story with an introduction of the character(s) and setting.
  2. Inciting Incident – This part does exactly as its title suggests! It’s the moment the incident (or conflict) incites the action in the story.
  3. Rising Action – This is often a series of events or moments that push the main character towards the climax of the story. This section is designed to increase the tension for the reader in anticipation of what is going to happen next.
  4. Climax – This is turning event of the story where the protagonist faces the main conflict. Through the rising action, the main character figuratively climbs the mountain and, at the point of climax, that main character is at the top and ready to “square off” with the conflict.
  5. Falling Action – Once the climax has been reached, it’s a matter of moving towards the resolution. Unlike the rising action, the falling action does not increase anticipation. Instead, it works as a way to resolve or unravel the conflict after the climax provides a turning point for the main character.
  6. Resolution – This is the end of the story. However, the name implies that things are “resolved,” but that is not always the case. Instead, the resolution is the “new normal” for the story’s main character.

You can check out my plot diagram mini-lesson for a ready-to-use teaching resource here. And if you’re new to teaching the plot structure, be sure to check out this post to be aware of potential missteps to avoid.

12 Best Pixar Shorts for Middle School

Here are my favorite Pixar shorts that are sure to entertain your students while they work away on figuring out the different elements of plot in each story. Some of the shorts at the end are not produced by Pixar but by CGI Animation. The bonus of these shorts is that nearly all of them are free of dialogue so students will also have a chance to practice their inference skills too!

using the pixar short hair love to teach plot elements

Hair Love

When her mom is sick in the hospital, a young girl named Zuri gets her father to do her hair for the first time. 

The Present

A young boy is given a present from his mom to help him break free of video games. The present is a puppy with three legs, who tries to do all of the things a puppy would normally do. The persistent puppy convinces the boy to leave the couch and his video games, and the final revelation is that the boy has one of his legs amputated.

using the pixar short the present to teach plot elements
using the pixar short for the birds to teach plot elements

For the Birds

A group of birds hanging out on a wire encounter another larger bird they declare an outsider based on looking different than them. The larger bird joins them anyway and they try to get rid of the bird only to get their comeuppance when the bird leaves and they’re launched high into the sky where they lose all of their feathers.

Lifted

When an alien tries to abduct a man while he’s sleeping hijinks ensue. The alien’s incompetence escalates with each move until finally it gives up and flies away, leaving the man without a home and his bed surrounded by a giant crater. It is only then that he wakes up!

using the pixar short lifted to teach plot elements
using the pixar short presto to teach plot elements

Presto

A magician’s bunny is starving for a just-out-reach carrot, while the magician is starving for attention. The magician tries to perform his act only to be interrupted by the bunny’s antics. The result, though, is a rousing ovation for the magician’s performance (and the bunny finally being given a carrot). 

Lou

J.J., a toy-stealing bully, encounters the lost and found box – Lou – who sets him onto the right path by forcing J.J. to return all of the things he’s taken from others. 

using the pixar short Lou to teach plot elements
using the pixar short Snack Attack to teach plot elements

Snack Attack

An elderly woman buys a snack from a vending machine and sits down beside a young man at the train station. The young man keeps taking cookies from a package as the woman gets increasingly angry and frustrated by his behavior. The film ends with a lovely little twist that highlights the kindness of strangers when the elderly woman discovers her package of cookies in her purse. It turns out she was the one taking the young man’s cookies rather than the reverse.

Bao

An older Chinese mom is missing her children who’ve moved out. She is comforted when one of the dumplings she makes comes alive. In the end, the dumpling grows up quite quickly and the mom realizes that time is fleeting. (NOTE: Bao is in the first 3:17 of the linked video and then another short takes over.)

using the pixar short Bro to teach plot elements
using the pixar short Piper to teach plot elements

Piper

A young sandpiper is trying to learn how to fend for itself by searching for food found on the beach below the sand. The danger in the search is heightened with the added difficulty of navigating ongoing incoming waves.

Spellbound

A young girl who is envious of her sister’s accomplishments begins writing in her journal about seeking revenge. Magically the ink from the journal comes alive as a monster out to get the girl’s sister. The young girl has to fight the ink monster to stop it from attacking her sister. In the end, the girl protects her sister and realizes she should not be jealous of her sister’s accomplishments.

using the pixar short Spellbound to teach plot elements
using the pixar short Wishgranter to teach plot elements

Wishgranter

A man and a woman visit a fountain to make wishes by throwing coins. Unfortunately, the underground wishgranter faces a challenge as their coins get stuck. Determined to fulfill his duty, he ventures above ground to resolve the issue. Just as he is about to give up, a waiter, whose wish has already been granted, drops a coin for the wish-granter. Lo and behold, his third coin unclogs the other coins, and the wish from the initial characters is granted.

Alma

A child finds a doll resembling herself in a shop window and enters the store to locate it. Unaware of other dolls with moving eyes, the child becomes fixated on finding their lookalike. Eventually, she touches the doll and gets trapped inside it, like the other dolls. She can only move her eyes and witness a new doll being added to the window to attract the next victim. This is my favorite short for teaching the elements of horror

using the pixar short Alma to teach plot elements

Once you pick your favorite Pixar shorts to use, decide which one you want to use as a model.

I recommend watching the short all the way through for the first time to get the gist. Then, go back and rewatch it with the plot elements in mind. Here’s my quick 8-step process for tackling the plot diagram:

  • Start by watching the animation until the inciting incident or problem arises.
  • Then, pause the video to discuss and jot down the exposition and inciting incident.
  • Unpause the clip and watch the short to the end.
  • Ask your students what the “turning point” was for the character.
  • Add that event to the climax of your plot diagram.
  • Discuss what immediately happened as a result of the turning point. Add this to the falling action of the diagram.
  • Discuss and add the resolution and rising action events to your plot diagram.
  • Rewatch the video one final time to verify.

Once you feel students are getting a hang of it, allow them to complete a plot diagram with a different Pixar short independently, with a partner, or in a group. With so many Pixar shorts to choose from, it’s easy to differentiate for the students in your class. Since some of the short films have simple plots and others are a bit more complicated, you can make clear choices to match different groups of students in your classes!

Along with their sometimes quirky but always engaging storylines and high-quality animation, this makes using Pixar shorts an ideal option for teaching plot elements in middle school!

Have any favorite Pixar shorts you would add to this list? Drop a comment below for future readers! And if you’re ready to practice the plot elements with a short story, see this article for my favorites!