Dr. Toon: Married on Paper
Yet another union had to occur in order for Paperman to become a historic short. The hybrid animation style had to click with audiences. New technologies sometimes don’t; early use of motion-capture animation came close to violating the well-known “uncanny valley” effect. Many critics, reviewers, and audiences, for example, considered The Polar Express (2004) more eerie and creepy than entertaining. Nearly twenty years after Toy Story (1995) however, conventional CGI features were no longer a novelty, either.
On the other hand, as Kahrs noted, 2D animated features needed some sort of revitalization if they were to click with modern audiences. To continue the wedding analogy, for jaded moviegoers Paperman was a beautiful new bride in the right place at the right time. It looks like hand-drawn animation fused with the realism of CGI, and filmgoers were stunned. Like most successful experiments, the outcome was highly desirable and appreciated.
Finally, there was the marriage of story and audience. It is no accident that Paperman takes place in the analog days of the 1940s.This venue allows antique charm to merge with high-tech presentation. Paperman is thus a hybrid short in many ways; it was this combination, as much as the 2D/3D meld, that gave this short further appeal. The story follows the classic boy-meets-girl, boy-loses girl, boy-gets girl prevalent in films of that era, compacted into seven minutes.
Paperman does require considerable suspension of disbelief; its internal contradictions are perhaps the film’s lone weak point. If the squadron of paper airplanes George launches are secretly in Dan Cupid’s service, why can’t at least one make its way through the office window across the street? Not only could these planes not hit the broad side of a barn, they couldn’t even (to use the vernacular of the day) land in a barn beside a broad.
Not until hundreds of them lie discarded in an alley do the planes seem to remember what it is George wanted them to do. Did they suddenly decide to play ball, or feel sorry for letting George down, or did they develop a hive mind? The planes are obviously sentient, as well as muscular, since they can overpower George and carry him along despite his struggles.
Since millions of viewers (as well as the Academy Awards voters) have obviously been charmed, it appears that none of these inconsistencies greatly matter. Paperman is a magical, romantic fantasy that upholds the First Rule of Animation: Technical proficiency, however beautiful, is worthless without a strong story. Paperman has one, and audiences fell for it as George did for Meg at that train station. The appeal of this short film is, in the end, as vivid as scarlet lipstick on a clean sheet of paper.
Paperman, therefore, is more complicated than it looks, because it draws appreciation not only as a film, but as a cultural and industry artifact as well. To call it merely a new method by which two forms of animation can produce a viable hybrid is to sell it short. Paperman, to sum up, is a marriage between 2D and 3D, between technology and capital, between audience and technology, and between audience and story. It represents the next generation of advances in the art of animation, with the bonus of adoration from film and animation fans. Not even Toy Story can make such a claim; it used only one form of technology.