Pixar Animation Studios' Day & Night played in theaters in front of the beloved Toy Story 3, the highest-grossing feature of 2010. I don't think I'm being perverse if I say that I distinctly preferred the short, at that; my bona-fides as a Pixar fanatic and a Toy Story 3 partisan are not, or should not, be in question, but the feature suffered, I think from a bit of shakiness in the beginning, while Day & Night, directed by character designer Teddy Newton, is quite probably the most impressive short-form piece that Pixar has put out - no small bit of praise for the studio behind Luxo Jr. and Geri's Game, just for starters.

Since there's a pretty significant chance that you saw the short, I can probably get away without synopsising it; and I'm damn tempted to do just that, since it's been plaguing me ever since June just how one would go about describing Day & Night without it sounding like a particularly incoherent dream. But let me make the attempt: in a black void, there is a fellow with a bulbous nose, and his body acts as an apparent window onto a world - I hesitate too say "behind" the black void, because that is not even remotely what the film indicates. But at any rate, this fellow soon meets another just like him, with a pointy nose; that, and where the first man is a window on the daytime landscape, his counterpart only looks over night. Whatever Day stands in front of is bright and energetic; when Night stands in front of the same space, we see the same landscape but empty and barren. The two fight, but in short order discover that there is beauty in both the daytime and the nighttime worlds.

Among of the film's incredible achievement is that it takes what I just described - if "description" is a fair word for that pile of verbiage - and turns it into a narrative that makes perfect sense while you're watching it; the rules of the universe, wherever it is, are established in all of 30 seconds, and after that it's all just letting the story play out. Newton's ability to finesse a remarkably difficult conceptual hook into a supremely easy cartoon is proof enough that he has storytelling skills much the equal of anybody working at Pixar. Yet this is also, possibly, the least of the film's achievements: it is technically, formally, and thematically a work of great accomplishment, and merely being able to tell a weird story coherently is just cake at that point.

Day & Night is about duality; this is obvious just from the title. What is maybe not so obvious is the way that this theme is reinforced in the formal construction of the piece. It is conventional wisdom that Pixar is responsible for proving that fully-rendered computer animation had narrative potential: never forget that their early groundbreaking works, which we now enjoy for the story and the personalities of the characters, were initially meant as straightforward tech demonstrations, and that it was mostly Steve Jobs' whim that let John Lasseter have a crack at making those demos fun to watch. It's also fairly well-known that the Pixar folk are huge fans of traditional cel-style animation, despite being the godfathers of the medium that has driven the old style all but to extinction in the marketplace. Day & Night represents the first marriage of those two forms in a Pixar production: the characters of Day and Night are themselves 2-D figures, while the world they reveal in their transparent bodies is CGI. This can be read on the one hand as an historical argument: traditional animation serves as the window through we we arrive at computer animation. Yet it is also, taken in hand with the film's message that even apparent opposites can live in harmony, a blast against the received wisdom that, in the CG age, traditional animation is dead: no, as you can clearly see here, they are both working together, serving a purpose that neither could achieve alone. Both forms are equally necessary, equally expressive.

There is then the matter of technological advance. It's generally understood that Pixar's shorts, not unlike Disney's Silly Symphonies back in the 1930s, are laboratories for working out new techniques; hence we have the combination of traditional and computer animation in a single frame, and I don't imagine this is the last we'll see of this gimmick, either. But Day & Night also serves, like Partly Cloudy in 2009, as a way of working out the use of 3-D, that fancy-ass over-priced new toy that Hollywood is humping so eagerly (I wonder what to make of it that both shorts use 3-D more interestingly than their accompanying features, Up and Toy Story 3, did; probably only that Pixar directors, rightfully, don't like being told that commercial concerns are going to dictate their storytelling choices). I'm more than happy to argue that Day & Night is the present masterpiece of 3-D cinema; Coraline uses 3-D in some amazing ways, no doubt, and for all their gimcrackery, Avatar and TRON: Legacy certainly understand the way to wring jaw-dropping spectacle out of the technology. But none of those have done such a fine job as Day & Night at using 3-D to deepen the meaning of the film, please forgive the inadvertent pun. Day & Night in 2-D is an excellent piece; Day & Night in 3-D is rapturous, building a world like nothing else I've ever seen. Day and Night are flat; the lines describing their limbs and their eyes are all on the same plane; the world within them stretches deep back, as far as the eye can see. The idea that they are the window on a different reality than the one in which they exist is much more pronounced in this way; particularly since they are "above" the black void, but the world inside them stretches much past the wall of the void. The black space is just the are in which the animation occurs in 2-D; in 3-D it is a limiting universe in which Day and Night themselves are the only things that exist, and by their very existence prove something much greater in scope than the nothingness where they reside. Visually, it implies a whole new theme: the inner life is bigger than the world containing it.

It's another facet of the idea of duality explored so fully in Day & Night's jam-packed six minutes: of course the main one is the big dualism, the difference between I and You, the Same and the Other. That idea is given a great pride of place: the only words in any human language spoken in the film come, right at the climax, in the form of a speech given by Dr. Wayne W. Dyer which states essentially that the self will always tend to reject what is different on the grounds that it is easier to remain insulated and ignorant than to do the work to understand the unfamiliar. It's a platitude; Dyer is a platitudinous thinker, but in his writing he presents a fairly straightforward practical philosophy that would, at the least, make the world better if more people followed it (disclosure: I once was made to attend a lecture Dr. Dyer gave, and found him to be an incredibly pleasant, if only somewhat charismatic speaker; what he said struck me rather deeply, though it takes a lot of filtering the New Age fluffiness out of what he says). And if Day & Night ultimately adds up to nothing more than, "Don't immediately dislike people who are not like you", that's by no means a disagreeable message, or a valueless one - and anyway, the film certainly does add up to more than that, even just on a script level: there's also a significant message about one's knowledge of self as a direct function of knowing others that's implicit in the twist ending. At any rate, however trite the "Don't judge others" moral might sound, and however unoriginal it no doubt is, it's unfortunately also a moral that remains absolutely fresh after thousands of years, and projects like Day & Night will continue to matter as long as human beings are human beings.

Oh, and it's funny. I didn't mention that, did I? I should have, because it's super-funny. Lot of comic sound effects and all. Funny.