Watch Disney’s wonderful Paperman right here

Walt Disney Animation Studios has produced one of the boldest animated films in years. Here’s why Paperman is so important...

UPDATE: Here’s our original article on Paperman, now with the full short film itself, that’s been released online by Disney…

After a period where it was hard to get excited about the films coming from Walt Disney Animation Studio (I’ve yet to meet anyone who raved about The Wild, a film distributed under the Disney banner, even if it wasn’t made by WDAS itself), the past five years have seen it really start to fire back into life.

It was the animated films that Disney was putting out in the late 80s and 90s that really got me into big-screen mainstream animation in the first place. Even in the films that some unwritten law says you’re not allowed to like – Treasure Planet being a prime example – I was finding lots to enjoy.

But, as history has told, it all fell apart. Walt Disney Animation Studios stopped being the innovators. Instead, it was Pixar, and to a lesser extent, DreamWorks, that was doing that kind of work. That’s before you even begin to consider what Brad Bird turned around with far fewer resources with The Iron Giant.

It was a depressing time, watching films such as Home On The Range, Chicken Little and The Wild come and go, and realising that Walt Disney Animation Studios had lost its boldness. As a result, I only ended up catching Meet The Robinsons at a kids’ club screening months after it came out, so far had Disney animation fallen off my radar. But I was glad I did. I still think Meet The Robinsons is something of an underrated treat, the first Disney film to directly benefit from bringing John Lasseter and his Pixar team into the company. It, consequently, marked something of a turnaround, and the momentum has been with Disney since.

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The films that followed? Bolt demonstrated a real commitment to quality character design, The Princess And The Frog rediscovered the initiative in hand-drawn animation, Tangled was glorious, Winnie The Pooh likewise. And now, we’ve got the small matter of Wreck-It Ralph to look forward to, a film that feels like it’s been made specifically to make everyone who reads this site happy.

But it’s Paperman I want to talk about, and it’s Paperman, I believe, that’s arguably most important for where Walt Disney Animation Studios is heading. If you dig back into the history of big-screen American animation, it’s Disney that did lots of the innovating, that took chances on new things. Even Pixar would have struggled to get where it is now had Disney not taken a chance of investing in Toy Story, back when CG animation was never considered a mainstream proposition (Disney also employed Pixar as early back as in 1991’s Beauty And The Beast).

Paperman is a short film directed by John Kahrs. At heart, it’s the straightforward story of a man trying to track down a woman he meets one morning in mid-century New York. Primarily in black and white, it’s accompanied by glorious music from Christophe Beck, and the simple idea is quite brilliantly realised.

What’s particularly interesting about Paperman, though, above and beyond what a superb short it is (and it really is), is what it says about Walt Disney Animation Studios. Because there’s genuine innovation in animation here, and not just in a technological arms race kind of way. Much of the progress in big screen blockbuster animation in the past few years has been on getting computers to do things that look better, and move faster, than ever before. The trick to Paperman is that John Kahrs has spent as much time looking backwards as he has looking forwards. 

Paperman, thus, tries something different. It builds on the work done in CG animation, and the film is rendered with computer visuals. But then Kahrs – with the aid of Glen Keane – has overlaid traditional 2D hand-drawn visuals over the top. Not everywhere, not least because this is a tightly-budgeted production. But to get across the added character that 2D drawing can inject, the likes of eyes and facial expressions are drawn over the CG visuals. 

It’s a striking, wonderful effect, married to a terrific little film. Furthermore, one by-product of the heavy work and investment in the two main characters is that Kahrs and his team had to be careful and clever in how they approached the backgrounds. I got a chance to ask Kahrs and producer Kristina Reed about this, and they confirmed that marrying CG and hand drawn animation together obviously involves some doubling up of already labour-intensive work. 

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Thus, when they approached the backgrounds, they’re deliberately kept a little rough (just look at the jagged detail on the clocks in the picture above). Edges aren’t smoothed out in places, and yet they feel a perfect fit for the material. I can’t think of an animated film where New York has looked quite so striking before.

Paperman is playing before Wreck-It Ralph when it arrives in cinemas (November in the US, February in the UK). It’s an over-used cliché, perhaps, but it is worth the entrance money alone. Longer term, it also sees Walt Disney Animation Studios taking the kind of risks it absolutely should be taking. Once upon a time, the studio was the standard that everyone else strived for. Short films like Paperman, which you can’t imagine anyone else making, are confident steps towards reclaiming that mantle. And if the 2D on 3D effect can stretch to a full feature, then I’ll be first in the queue to see it. Especially if John Kahrs is directing…

Article updated to correct the inaccuracy pointed out in the comments!

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