Here's my pitch: Pixar Animation Studios needs to make more films with birds. Because here we are, with the company's newest short film Piper, which is exquisite: the studio has not released such a beguiling, immediately engaging little miniature in the sixteen years since For the Birds (which remains my favorite Pixar short - not the best, but dear God yes, my favorite). The films share two things in common: the characters are birds, & the birds are unbelievably adorable. So I return to my contention: birds in ever Pixar short going forward, please. I would like many more Pipers in the future.

As a narrative, Piper goes for a wholly straightforward "face your fears & do your best message": on a beach full of sandpipers, one little chick patiently waits for its (her? I kept thinking of it as a her) mother to come back with food, only to find that today is the say that she'll have to learn how to hunt clams on her own. The baby bird finds this nerve-wracking and confusing and difficult, and then downright apocalyptic when the waves roll in. But at the same time, it is by putting herself out in a place where she is scared and hurt that she discovers a new perspective that completely changes her relationship to the beach, and clams, and the water. It's hard to write a plot summary for a six-minute film without any spoilers, y'all.

Anyway, Piper is a tiny little fable, one whose message was a corny old cliché before there was even a cinema, but one of the privileges of short animation is relying on conventions that it explores in new ways. In this case, those new ways involve some exquisite artificial cinematography, and we'll get there in a moment, but what it especially involves is the little baby sandpiper, who is so adorably cute that it's poisonous. This is not the film for people who grouse about Pixar films being emotionally manipulative: Piper is shameless to a degree that is virtually unprecedented, making its protagonist as unbearably adorable and sweet as I think an animated character has ever been. This is, in its own way, thoroughly impressive: the highly realistic bird physiognomy has been treated with great respect by the animators, working under first-time director Alan Barillaro (a supervising animator at Pixar for many years), and their ability to carve out emotionally recognisable expressions and pantomime is quite stunning. This is not the exaggerated cartooning that lets the birds in For the Birds or the rabbit in Presto show off a wide range of slapsticky feelings; this is delicate, tiny acting, and the fact that it works so well - the fact that when the little bird looks eagerly at her mother and then holds her mouth open expectantly, it made me melt into a pool of warm goo right there in the theater - is impressive as hell.

Also impressive: the focus and precision with which the compositions are presented. This is one of Pixar's most top-to-bottom photorealistic projects since the opening act of WALL·E, and the first since that film to extensively rely on manipulations of focus and camera angle that would be impressively sophisticated in a live-action film, and which are just dazzling miracles in animation. Piper is a film told, in no small part, through the use of shallow depths of field - in part, just a way of reiterating the illusion that we're watching a real film, since anything shot on the tiny scale that Piper takes place would necessarily have shallow focus. If you're able to put a crab the size of a human baby's fingernail onscreen, big enough to register its expressions (like the bird, the crab is quite a rich actor that nonetheless looks entirely like an animal), then no, you are not going to be able to put it in deep staging also.

But the film gets something more than just verisimilitude from its focus. As a narrative, Piper is entirely about stretching out and expanding your horizons, and the cinematography emphasises that. There are a few shots with deep three-dimensional focus: those are the ones where the bird is suddenly overwhelmed by the scope and size of the world, whether in terror or in awe. Not everybody is going to notice this, of course (particularly not the children who are, in theory, the target audience, unless they are uniquely precocious), but it's the kind of thing you feel - it has the same effect of scale and sprawl on us that it does on the bird, and that kind of empathy is key to Piper's success. The film's triumph isn't just in making the most sickeningly adorable baby bird in the annals of human art; it's in managing to hook our perception to that bird so completely that we go on a rollicking emotional journey with it in just six minutes. It is as satisfying at that level as anything else I've seen in all of 2016.