Paperman is a Walt Disney animated short film by John Kahrs released in 2012. It’s creativity in combining both traditional and computer animation has garnered itself an Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film at the 85 th Academy Awards in 2013.
I’m choosing to view this text through Narrative Analysis because it’s an animated film. Over the years, animation, especially those made by Disney, used to be just for children. So what happens when the adult social world becomes “storied” and comes to life in a black and white, 2D film?
I’ll start by differentiating the plot and the story. The plot refers to everything presented to us, in the order in which it was presented. In the case of Paperman, it is the story of a man, unofficially named George, who had a funny encounter with a woman, unofficially named Meg, on a train station, and did what he could to find her again. On the other hand, the story is the sum total of all the events presented to us, including the inferences we’ve made about the story. So George met Meg, which could be the only excitement he’s had in a while and creatively did what he could to get her attention and find her again. I also noticed how Meg’s lipstick is a dark shade of faded red and that and the lipstick mark are the only two things that are colored in the film. I’d like to think it meant that Meg is bringing color into George’s life as well as into the story.
In every story, there is the matter of Causality and in this case, it is Meg that has caused George to be moved into action. The story also delayed information by surprising us with the paper airplanes flying on their own accord. As for the Time aspect, the Plot Duration is the time it took for events to occur and in this case, it started in the morning, let’s say around 8:00 AM when people are on their way to work in the US. The story progresses until what seemed like lunch, when George and Meg were seen at a diner. Then there’s Screen Duration, or the time it takes to watch the short, which only takes 6 minutes and 34 seconds to be exact. There was also a Montage, when it showed cuts from both George’s and Meg’s travel back to the train station. The setting or the space in which the story occurs is in New York. The train station, the big buildings, and the busy roads undoubtedly allude to the concrete jungle.
Applying Tzvetan Todorov’s schema, we start off with the Exposition, wherein George is waiting for his train at the station, carrying a stack of papers, and his face expressing immense boredom. The Disruption begins when a gust of wind blows a sheet of paper from George’s stack to Meg’s face. When he retrieves it, he laughs since it has her lipstick mark on it but then finds that Meg has entered the departing train. They give each other lingering, curious looks and were cut off as soon as the train sped up. The Complication occurs with George’s boss dumping a huge pile of paperwork on his desk. Incidentally, that they become a part of George’s plan to get Meg’s attention when he sees her in the building across the street, but it was to no avail. The Climax begins when George hastily flees from his workplace in an attempt to catch Meg. He was just about to give up when a group of paper airplanes he’s made suddenly comes to life and brings him back to the station. George, unsure of where the paper airplanes will take him, is annoyed because they can control him, while Meg is the opposite because only the paper with her kiss mark is leading the way and she’s quite excited to see where it takes her. We now reach The Resolution, when the paper airplanes finally let go of George after dropping him in front of Meg. The credits show us George and Meg sitting in a diner, smiling and seeming to enjoy each other’s stories and company.
Now following Vladimir Propp’s seven character types/roles, I found that only four were applicable in this short film. Beginning with The Hero, of course, we have George. He is the chief protagonist who, because of his actions, becomes the main agent of narrative change in the story. He is so deeply moved by meeting Meg that he postpones and leaves work just to find her. The Villain comes in three figures: the boss who gives George a mountain of papers for filing and repeatedly checks on him to keep him focused on work. Then there’s the paperwork itself, the mundane task of having to fix and file them one by one. And then there’s the failure of the paper airplanes to catch Meg’s attention from the other side of the building; these are the struggles George had to endure. Then there’s The Helper, which comes in the form of the paper airplanes. They failed to help George initially but managed to redeem themselves by going in a group, and in classic Disney fashion, helped both George and Meg find their way back to each other. And of course, there’s The Princess who came in the form of Meg, and without her, we wouldn’t see any form of build-up or change in the story.
In terms of Intertextuality, director John Kahrs (2012) said that George was inspired by George Bailey, the main character from 1946 film It’s A Wonderful Life. Kahrs (2012) said that “Bailey is a relatable guy, someone you can identify with. I wanted the audiences to be able to connect with this George as well.” Younger audiences who haven’t seen It’s A Wonderful Life might notice some other resemblance with a Disney character, particularly Roger Radcliffe from 101 Dalmatians. This comparison with this one is more physical, seen in the skinny build and the similar face structures and body proportions.
Personally, I thought it resembled the 2009 movie (500) Days of Summer a lot, only this one is more romanticized, is animated, and not at all cynical of love. It reminded me of that movie because it was also set in New York, and was about these young professionals finding love even in the most mundane places. It was also quite similar due to the skinny male lead, namely George and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and the doe-eyed female lead, namely Meg and Zooey Deschanel.
Walt Disney usually releases these short films before the premiere of a full-length animated film. Kahrs (2012) said that his short wasn’t able to premiere in 2010 because it coincided with Tangled; maybe partly due to the similar storylines. However, it struck a good deal with its release in 2012 alongside Wreck-It-Ralph, and it moved and delighted audiences who were not expecting this kind of short film that year.
Blain, H. (Interviewer) & Kahrs, J. (Interviewee). (2012). Interview: PAPERMAN’s Academy Award WINNING writer/director John Kahrs [Interview Transcript]. Retrieved from Live For Films Web site: http://www.liveforfilms.com/2013/02/24/an-interview-with-papermans-academy-award-nominated-writerdirector-john-kahrs/
Reed, K. (Producer), & Kahrs, J. (Director). (2012). Paperman [Motion Picture]. United States: Walt Disney Animation Studios.