Before reading my commentary into this short, I suggest first watching the full 7 minute short Paperman in the video below, which is now the Oscar nominated short Disney has posted in its entirety on You Tube.
The first thing I’d like to say up front is I know how popular this short is for a lot of people. It’s got a lot of aesthetically pleasing elements to it, a unique visual style, and a somewhat unique merging of 2D/CG animation. And also, most people have found themselves compelled and engaged by the story.
However, when I look at a short like this, it just exemplifies for me the continuing problems that are abound in American feature animation storytelling. Most of you are probably saying, well this is a short, not a feature film. That is true, but the same rules in feature animation storytelling are applied here in this short. This film Paperman is an example of where the tools of storytelling are the end all be all of the final product. The tools themselves are tricks specifically designed to engage the audience’s emotions. That doesn’t mean those tools make the film good. You can have a story that at its deepest core has nothing to say at all, but when that happens, the filmmakers are instead relying on audience expectations, because they know what tools essentially “work” on an audience, and the tools are turned into gimmicks are used many times over are used to blindside the audience with their emotions and distract them from what really isn’t there to begin with. In a nutshell: The filmmakers are putting up a facade, selling you on the idea that there’s something there with the short when there’s really nothing happening at all. Sometimes its the techniques of the story that do this for us, sometimes its the techniques of the visuals that also do the work in making you believe what your watching is an artistic achievement. But when you get down to it, that’s all they are. Techniques.
When it comes to the real emotional core of something, the heart and truthfulness of any story…well, your true voice is what transcends all technique. Technique is simply the method of delivery for your voice. When you truly have something to say with a film, you don’t need to try and convince the audience something is there. They will already know. I will give a perfect example of this.
Since Paperman is a romance/love story, I’ll make a comparison to one of the most popular romance movies everyone knows: The Princess Bride. Now, that film is a a 90 minute feature and Paperman is a 6 minute short, but let me explain. In the opening scene of The Princess Bride, the “as you wish”, it takes only about a minute and a half for Wesley and Buttercup to fall in love. Take a look:
We get it completely. These are two people who were meant to be together, and even though (like Paperman) the scene is a heightened romance, at the same time, deep down, there is a truthfulness to this relationship that we can instantly believe in, because it comes from screenwriter William Goldman‘s own personal experience and feelings about the essence that makes two people fall in love. In The Princess Bride, this introductory scene is the moment the film lives or dies by. If we can‘t believe in their love for each other in that minute and 30 seconds, the rest of the film will be a waste. The movie itself is a comedy, but this sequence is played completely straight. It’s romantic. It’s touching. And the scene is so strong that once Wesley and Buttercup fall in love, were committed to their desire to find each other again before the end of the movie. We know deep down, these people HAVE to find each other again.
With Paperman’s opening scene, I felt none of that. We can conclude like Princess Bride, the short is going or die in the first 40 seconds when the boy and girl meet. But as you can see in the beginning, everything about their relationship happens by convenience. We’re given no clear reason why these two are meant for each other. He makes no desire on his own to make first contact with her, the universe does it for him when the wind blows the document he has right in her face. I can point out to you all the convenience as to how the filmmakers play on the audiences emotions. First, in the beginning when the girl shows up, the shot composition has her stand right next to him on the train platform. There may be a little flirting in there, but it’s a convenient spot so the paper can fly in her face and leave her lipstick imprint on it. But lets say now that the scene was handled a little differently. What if they made it a little less convenient and more difficult for the boy to contact the girl. What if instead of being next to him she was all the way down at the other end of the platform. He might watch her from a distance, be attracted to her and think she’s a beautiful woman, but he doesn’t have the courage to go over and talk to her. THEN that document blows away in the wind towards her. It might be an important document he needs for work and he has to physically run all the way down over to her. The paper could still hit her in the face and leave the lipstick mark on it. But the idea is the man is taking a proactive step to make the first move. His emotional drive in that moment leads him to her. But the idea is he’s gotta give some kind of sign to the universe that he’s interested in her. Because if we get no sign in that moment that he’s interested, then everything happening to bring them together is really divine intervention. The man just doesn’t give us a strong enough sign that he really wants to be with this girl in the opening scene, and yet the cosmos plays matchmaker and everything is provided for them. But since this is a Disney film, and the majority of Disney film followers are a heavy Christian/ Catholic demographic audience, it’s not surprising people are going to easily buy into this divine matchmaking scenario. Its the universe telling you who to fall in love with and not nessecerely yourself. In my opinion, that’s a false way of telling us why two people should fall in love.
Going back to The Princess Bride, you can also say the universe may have brought Wesley and Buttercup together on the farm. But the difference with that film is that Wesley sees the signs right away and he’s able to make the first move with the subtle hint “as you wish”, telling Buttercup that he loves her. In Paperman, right from the beginning I don’t know why I’m supposed to care if these two people get together. Everything is played on convenience, and that‘s the major problem. And to tell you the truth, I’m not sure deep down the filmmakers also don’t know what it is that brings these two people together to begin with. It’s true know one knows the real, true reason why two people may come together and fall in love, and what makes that attraction work. But the truth we do know about life is that you only get what you put out there first. The problem with the filmmakers not knowing or being able to give us a sign why they should be with each other, they are instead relying on all the tools of storytelling to try and convince us this union is the right thing. I saw this kind of forced storytelling technique going all the way back to Cal Arts, because students had no idea what they had to say personally as artists, and always used the tools they learned as a crutch to get the audience to react to their films. It would not be surprising to see a film like Paperman made at Cal Arts. However, this film is not a Cal Arts short, this is a short film made by professional, experienced artists at Disney. And yet at the same time it feels as if these filmmakers after all these years after school still haven’t figured out what’s really important to them in their inner voice, what their true feelings are about love, and why this particular relationship in Paperman is worth fighting for. A film built solely on technique may be convincing yourself and the audience that it’s the truth. But its also an example of how technique can be your own worst enemy, and get in the way of allowing yourself to truly express something. With the image of the couple in Paperman standing next to each other on the train platform, just giving the audience that image, it’s not like we have to think hard that these two people are probably going to get together by the end of the short. You will notice I am only talking about the beginning of the short and not the rest of it. The reason is, like I said, that the first 40 seconds is the most important part of the short, and if the guy sees the girl in the office across the way and couldn’t figure out from the beginning that he wanted to get with this girl at the train station, he is letting something other than himself dictate why he has to be with her.
So from the get go, its already relying on the audiences expectations for what they’ve seen in the past, and the fact that it’s a Disney film, that the guy will get the girl at the end.