Wreck-It Ralph is the first great video game movie since Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, and like Edgar Wright’s nerd rom-com, it captures the medium’s color, culture, and visual ingenuity, while anchoring the spectacle in ardent humanity. Whether you’re in it for the Roger Rabbit-style procession of cameos; the sweet charm of the voice work by John C. Reilly, Jane Lynch and Sarah Silverman (her best role yet); or the strong sense of morality and character that broadens the film’s appeal to all audiences, Disney’s latest is worth every quarter.
Is that clear? Good. Now, let’s talk about Paperman.
Paperman, directed by John Kahrs (lead character animator on The Incredibles), is the short film preceding Wreck-It Ralph in theatres. It opens on a crisp, startling image in black-and-white of a young man waiting for a train. Even without color, we see the sky is overcast, the man’s face in tune with the dour New York clime; a hollow wind rustles his jacket and serves as our initial soundtrack: empty, lonely, sad, dejected… chillingly modern. This is a shot peeled from the reels of French New Wave and Italian Neorealism. In the world of bright cartoon shapes and consummate whimsy, it’s jarring and alien, a stranger in a strange land.
In these brief moments, without context, I knew Paperman would be a work of genius. Sometimes you just know: “Long ago in a galaxy…” and you’re swept away. That was my experience with Paperman, a technical revolution and emotional powerhouse, a radiant, blissful smile in cinematic form.
A chance meeting breaks the first shot’s gloom: A young woman stands next to the man. They say nothing — and have nothing to say. True to Pixar’s example, Paperman is silent, except for grunts, foley and orchestration. An accident causes some amusement when the wind blows a piece of paper into the woman’s face, and her lips “sign” it with a perfect red ring of lipstick. The two laugh, then part ways.
I don’t think I’d spoil much by saying the man later sees his wind-crossed lover working across the street in a parallel office, visible through his window, and tries to reconnect by flying her paper airplanes. You’ve probably inferred this is a story of fate and human connection forged inside the soulless metropolis, and when we see the young man’s office — a facsimile of 1950s white-collar Hell — we trust its rows of desks and soulless bureaucrats will give way to something more intimate, something human.
It’s a simple story about simple emotions used to share a simple, universal message, a modest effort were it not for the ambitious tool set at the film’s disposal. I haven’t even hinted yet at Paperman‘s greatest technical innovation: the blending of traditional 2D animation and CGI to give characters three-dimensional bodies with ink-drawn faces. Half of the beginning shot’s magic stems from the jolt of reorienting our depth perception. What exactly are we seeing? It’s more fluid than reality, more expansive than hand-drawn — but because it’s quite simply gorgeous, we forget the question and lose ourselves in its spell.
Like the alien vistas in Avatar or the interplay of 8-bit and CG in Wreck-It Ralph, Paperman‘s technology breakthrough (accomplished through an entirely new system of animation) transcends its mechanical nature to resonate on an emotional level. The film stops being a rote story of “boy meets girl” and becomes a ballet — visceral, divine — all the more enchanting when the second half of the film amps up the magic realism and Christophe Beck’s score soars with the paper through Manhattan. By then, my smile hung from each ear, and I couldn’t shop shaking my head. I sat in a theatre packed with kids who gibbered through the previews, but until halfway through Paperman, nobody dared breathe. Their bodies stood still, and their souls existed on the other side of the screen, transported.
Paperman is what your grandparents talk about when they say Grace Kelly made the silver screen glow; it’s the crackle and spark of old and new joining in an epiphany, what Walt Disney gave audiences when he convinced them a hand-drawn mouse could run a steamboat and whistle. The best of classic Hollywood lives on in Paperman, and while it’s been ignored by critics more concerned with the $165-million feature it prefaces, for seven minutes it demonstrates animation is not just child’s play but often a window into the intangible dreams and yearning inside us, where the payoff is not locked lips but locked eyes, the shimmer of relief at crossing a great spiritual divide.