Paperman is the best thing Disney has done in years. There are only seven minutes of it, but they’re perfect. The short film went out last autumn in front of American prints of Wreck-It Ralph, one of a hat-trick of Oscar-nominated features the studio have released – the others being Tim Burton’s Frankenweenie and Pixar’s Brave. My money would be on Frankenweenie to steal that award, but down in Best Animated Short, the race looks pretty much over – nothing as charming as Paperman ever fails to win this.
A wordless tale of romance between two strangers in mid-century New York City, the movie is a simple construct, supremely well-rendered, and in black-and-white, except for a few crucial blotches of red lipstick. It may, in its modest way, point towards a new frontier in animation, where computer-generated visuals are brought face to face with old-style hand-drawing, because it uses both at once.
John Kahrs’s film was put together using Meander, a new piece of in-house software that allows Disney’s artists to draw directly over the top of computer-rendered sequences. This is what gives the movie its freshness – the lines, the expressiveness of the faces, and the idiosyncratic hair movements hark back to classic Disney style, with shades of 101 Dalmatians. At the same time, it’s advancing on technology from 2010’s Tangled, on which Kahrs worked as a supervising animator, to achieve the depth, sheen and perspective we’ve grown accustomed to demand from Disney’s visuals.
It’s a wizardly blend, and a real showcase for where these animators look to be heading. What’s more, as of this week, Disney has been generous enough to make the film available all over the internet for free. Watch it on YouTube and decide for yourself.
If you saw Wreck-It Ralph in theaters (assuming you didn’t arrive late), you probably saw Paperman, a black-and-white short from Walt Disney Animated Studios. If you dwell on the Internet and have a tumblr or Facebook account, someone on one of your lists has probably mentioned the short film; you might have seen the full short when it was available for free on YouTube. (Apparently it’s a $1.99 download now, but you can watch the trailer here.) And if you didn’t see it in theaters or on YouTube and haven’t heard it mentioned via social media, I’m still reasonably sure that Paperman has somehow crossed your radar, since it’s garnered heaps of critical acclaim and several award nominations because it’s just so goddamned adorable. Seriously, everybody loves this short film.
If you haven’t seen the short and don’t know the slightest thing about it, here’s the summary: a goofy jackass blows an opportunity to chat up a hottie at the train station and then spends the rest of his morning risking his job and life to rectify his error. When he spies the woman again in a skyscraper opposite the one in which he works, he tries to get her attention by throwing paper airplanes across the gap between the buildings — presumably hoping that she’ll be thrilled to have her job interview interrupted by an aerodynamic paper shiv gliding in through the open window and stabbing her in her pretty face. When that plan fails, and literally results in the guy tossing stacks of paperwork and hundreds of paper airplanes out the window, the man runs out of his office and across busy streets in an attempt to chase her down on the sidewalks of New York. He loses her, but — magically — the wind picks up those paper airplanes and slams them into the dude!!! And they push him around town like a minifigure in an oversized Spawn Alley playset until they all but shove him into the lap of the pretty chick. CUE LOVE.
Yeah, I know, even my cynical description makes it sound kinda cute. It is — and when I first saw it, I “awwed” and sighed and fist-pumped with the rest of the crowd as the goofy protagonist of the story did his protagonisty airplane-tossin’ crazed street-stalkin’ thing. But then, after I saw Wreck-It Ralph (Papermanaired before it) and in the following days, I started thinking. And the more I thought about it, the more I hated Paperman.
Personal admission: in my life, I have never once gotten the girl. No amount of kindness or scrubbing up has caused a woman to cast even the slightest interested eye in my direction, and at this point I don’t expect it — given my spectacularly grim track record with women, it’s more likely that Israel will posthumously name Hitler a national hero and President Obama will deliver all future speeches in the traditional royal Canterlot voice than that I’ll meet a woman who doesn’t think I’m actively plotting to rape and torture her, let alone one who values me as a trusted partner and friend. (In fairness, according to the feministy articles on the ‘net about the toxic rape culture in which we live, women have these fearful feelings about all men… but in my case women have consistently filed premature accusations in Minority Report fashion.)
Of course, none of this means that I don’t often root for fictional characters to get the girl or to rise in the esteem of their would-be loves. I do, and I nod approvingly when lovesick vampires are permitted to cross thresholds and green shapeshifting teens go on amusement park dates with skinny blondes in goggles (before said dates are crashed by one-eyed supervillain assassins). But I don’t like it when the characters who have everything else get the girl too — and, in this respect, one of the worst offenders in recent memory is actually Wreck-It Ralph. In the movie, Wreck-It Ralph (the character) gets treated like utter shit for much of the film (and, presumably, has been receiving this treatment on a daily basis for the last thirty years). In the end, true, the residents of Niceland come to value his contributions to the community and treat him like an actual human being… but it’s Fix-It Felix, who’s been the recipient of the Nicelanders’ heartfelt praises and delicious pixelated apple pies (again for the last thirty years), who gets the girl. Yes, Ralph does become besties with Sarah Silverman (Vanellope von Schweetz), and Sarah Silverman is pretty cute. But this incarnation of Sarah Silverman is nine years old and will presumably never grow up, so in some respects that’s even worse. Wreck-It Ralph is a grown fucking man.
Anyway, it didn’t initially occur to me when I first watched the short, but now I see that the protagonist of Paperman is precisely one of those characters who has everything (or is at least doing pretty well) and then ends up with the girl on top of it. Note that, in the beginning of the short, George (that’s his name, according to the credits) actually misses his train — or does presumably, since his destination and that of Meg (the pretty chick he’s chasing) end up being directly opposite each other. (By the way, Meg kinda sucks, too. If you and I were having an interaction and you looked away, I wouldn’t disappear onto the train without getting your attention, if only because I’d assume that you might possibly need to board the same train. For her to leave him standing there on the platform without a word — and completely alone, which in NYC does suggest that that was his train — well, that’s just bloody inconsiderate.) So, given that George presumably misses his train, he probably arrives to work late.
He then proceeds to throw a big freaking stack of documents out the window, over a lengthy period of time and despite his boss’s disapproving glances, before running helter-skelter from the office without so much as a word. Never mind that those were possibly important documents. Never mind that some elderly gentleman is losing his home or that some working-class single mother is being denied breast cancer treatment because the signed papers that might have prevented those outcomes are currently gliding around NYC folded into fucking airplanes. That George would have the audacity to show up late, literally toss his responsibilities out the window, and then bolt from the office in pursuit of a girl he doesn’t even know — and without the slightest regard for his continued and/or future employment — says to me one thing: he can’t be fired. This is supported by the fact that George isn’t fired on the spot when the boss firstcatches George tossing documents out of the window, which is what would happen to you or me if we were working in an office and suddenly started sending assignmnents sailing o’er the windowsill. So if George can’t be fired, he’s probably the son of the company owner or a major shareholder or something, which suggests that he was given the job as a favor to dear old Dad. Would that all of us could find gainful employment so easily in this economy! (The more I think about it, the more insulting it seems that Disney chose to produce this short during such tough times.)
Okay, so we’ve established that George has the establishment on his side when it comes to all things professional. Then — as if he didn’t already have enough people holding him up — the freaking wind itselftakes up the task of getting George laid. That, friends, is just unbelievable. The wind never did shit for me, and there are many talented homeless musicians playing it up in the subway terminals of NYC into whose coffers the wind might have blown some cash for a month at the YMCA. Instead, it’s shoving stupid George around with the papers he threw out the window just so he can make nice with a pretty girl who, by the way, apparently does have to interview for her jobs. And the wind does this despite the fact that George is a horrible litterbug. It doesn’t matter how terrible this guy is or what offenses he commits; the world is totally on his side.
So, yes, I hate Paperman now. It is indeed cute at a glance, but the more one thinks about it the more apparent it becomes that George deserves none of the rewards life consistently heaps upon him and should, like those important folded documents, be tossed from that skyscraper window into a mud puddle far below with no delicious cake there to greet him. Instead, at this moment, he’s probably staring into Meg’s eyes from the opposite side of a table with a red cloth and a single candle while I sit here typing this stupid article and drinking chocolate wine alone. (It’s delicious, by the way.)
Why do people suffering from writer’s block resort to solitude? Haven’t they seen The Shining? Whether or not it seems like a bright idea at the start, eventually you’ll lose it and attack your loved ones. Okay, maybe you won’t exactly end up wielding an axe, but peace and quiet can only take you so far. Paper Man is the offspring a husband and wife writing-directing team’s trouble putting pen to paper. Unhappy working inside Hollywood’s big studio system, Michele and Kieran Mulrooney chose to ditch the corporate world and focus on independent projects. It worked and the result is Paper Man.
Richard Dunn (Jeff Daniels) has some major issues. Not only was his first novel a flop, but he’s suffering from a serious case of writer’s block, his marriage is on the rocks and oh yeah, he has an imaginary friend named Captain Excellent (Ryan Reynolds). In an effort to give him a fresh start Richard’s wife, Claire (Lisa Kudrow), drives him out to a rented house in Sag Harbor. They spend the weekends together, but soon Claire returns to her surgical work at New York’ Presbyterian Hospital while Richard remains out east trying to develop his second novel, a piece with a connection to an extinct animal, the Heath Hen.
Dunn’s writer’s block could easily consume the audience had it not been for one of Paper Man’s more colorful characters, literally. Reynolds’ portrayal of the blond and buff Captain Excellent won’t do much to convince you he’ll make a good Green Lantern, but his eccentric work makes for the perfect distraction until you grow to love the curious and often unlikable Richard. He’s downright strange, doesn’t seem to appreciate his loving wife and has a frustratingly difficult time figuring out who ‘regarded his solitude.’
Thankfully, in comes Emma Stone as Abby to establish the kind of connection with the audience which Daniels’ character depends on. When a carless Richard rides a tiny red bike into town, the two have an unusual encounter resulting in Richard asking Abby to babysit. Confused? You should be. Richard has no child and ultimately has to break that news to Abby when she comes over. She finds the revelation strange, but her infatuation with Richard takes over and an unlikely relationship begins.
Stone, Daniels, Reynolds and a smart twist make Paper Man worthwhile. Stone and Daniels are as raw as they com. After being all done up in nearly every film she’s been in, seeing Emma sans heavy black eyeliner makes a major difference. Not only does her fresh look scream authenticity but her performance does too. At first, her relationship with Daniels is clearly inappropriate, but it develops into something oddly relatable.
The same goes for relationship between Richard and Captain Excellent. There’s obviously something wrong with an older man having an imaginary friend, but Richard’s dependence on his super pal is necessary. Even amidst their endless banter and Richard’s refusal to accept the Captain’s better judgment, Richard finds comfort in him and you genuinely want Richard to have a sense of calm in his life. A similar connection exists between Abby and her friend Christopher (Kieran Culkin). Abby’s boyfriend Bryce (Hunter Parrish) drives Christopher crazy for two reasons; one, he treats her like garbage and two, Christopher loves Abby. The problem is, Abby doesn’t have the urge to return that sentiment. They don’t share an equivalent bond of dependence, but Abby’s unspoken reliance on Christopher is essential causing a yearning to see her embrace him.
Brilliant editing keeps the film moving at a perfect pace. Potentially dull material is kept at a steady beat with abrupt yet subtle cuts easing you from scene to scene. Enhancing the effects is noticeably unique cinematography as Eigil Bryld uses typical camera parlor tricks like foreground to background focus swaps effectively, permitting the actors to excel even more so than they do on their own. All of Paper Man’s assets culminate in a beautifully unexpected twist.
Unfortunately, rather than bring the audience down gently, concluding the tale, Paper Man dribbles on for the final portion of the film. You may be sure a fade to black is on its way, but no, there’s more and this happens so many times that concern for the characters is lost amidst all the waiting for an ending. It’s really a shame because up until this point Paper Man is a sweet, uniquely humorous, simple film. It remains charming and peculiarly funny, but the loss of that original simplicity dampens the experience. Regardless, Paper Man is worth your time, if not for the film in its entirety, then for Stone and Daniels alone.
Coupled with Wreck-It Ralph, Disney’s Paperman is the latest animated short from the House that Mickey Built. Combining the life and soul of 2D drawings with 3D models rendered in stylish black and white, does the short inspire confidence in what some are calling “the future of 2D animation?”
Paperman is the child of director John Kahrs, who dreamed up the possibility of the short while working as an animator at Blue Sky Studios. It follows a meeting between a nameless man and woman at a mid-20th century train platform in New York City. A chance gust of wind blows one of his work-related forms into her face, leaving a bright red lipstick stain. Before he can talk to her, she boards a train and it speeds off.
The man proceeds to his workplace in a skyscraper downtown, but discovers with joy and surprise that the woman from the station is in the building just across the street. It’s too far to yell in such a noisy city, so he begins crafting paper airplanes to fly across the void and get her attention. This makes up the bulk of the film as he goes through an entire stack of his work forms making the planes, including the lipstick-marked paper from earlier. Alas, none successfully reach her.
Abandoning his desk, he rushes to the street to try and catch her as she leaves, but is unsuccessful. Distraught, he turns to leave. Suddenly the hundreds of paper airplanes he created come to life and cover every inch of him. They pull and shove and corral him onto a train as the original lipstick-stained airplane leads the girl to the same station and reunite the couple.
Style and Animation
If you were to try and define “artsy animation” you might look no further for an example than Paperman. From the staging to the character design to the simple black and white (with symbolic pop of red) color palette, the film is visually brilliant. The combination of 2D expressions on the 3D characters fits perfectly and produces a quality that is near-impossible to capture in 3D models alone. Though “black and white with red” is nothing new or revolutionary, Paperman uses it with simplistic beauty.
The animation is just about as good as 3D animation gets, taking its cues from the masters of the Golden Age of 2D. Using a new in-house program called Meander, animators were able to break models and even erase parts of the 3D characters one frame at a time if necessary. One of the major downsides to 3D animation has always been the difficulty to “cheat” in situations that called for it, without breaking the models or causing terrible rendering errors. Meander appears to allow for such cheating with ease, and the result is gorgeous.
Paperman will no doubt make the Oscar short list next year and I’d be hard-pressed to argue against it winning the award. While the style and story are classically tried-and-true, the advancements that Meander has allowed the animators to make to traditional 3D animation cannot be discounted. If ever an animated short cried out “Vote for me” in any competition, Paperman is it. Whether you are a bigger fan of 2D animation or 3D, Paperman NEEDS your attention. See it as soon as possible.
Disney’s Paperman can be seen before the film Wreck-It Ralph, now in US theaters. According to sources close to Disney, it will also be available online after a set period of time. (Truly, if you can, see it in theaters on the big screen. It’s worth it.)