This year’s Hamptons International Film Festival has largely been defined by movies that make you want to cry your eyes out until they’re squishy red gobs. Pictures like “Rust and Bone,” “Amour” and “Silver Linings Playbook” challenge even the manliest audience members to sit there with a straight face and not be reduced to jags of blubbery weeping. But no movie at the festival has packed quite the emotional punch of the Disney Animation short film “Paperman,” which, in its brief 7-minute run time, will defy even the most stoic viewer to keep a straight face. From the opening frame, the film’s sweeping romanticism and groundbreaking visual style proves too much to resist. The fact that this might be the new face of traditional animation isn’t something that even registers; it’s that involving.
The story involves a couple who meet by chance on a train platform (it looks like sometime after World War II). He’s some kind of office drone and is carrying a stack of papers with him. When a single sheet blows into her face, it leaves an impression of her red lipstick on the page (the red is the single dab of color in the entire black-and-white short). They go about their separate ways but the man is haunted by the encounter. Looking up from his desk he notices the woman in a neighboring building. He then takes a stack of papers and starts folding them into sharp paper airplanes; hang-gliding origami love letters. He shoots paper airplane after paper airplane across from one building to another; always missing her attention, all the while trying to avoid detection from his angry boss and fellow coworkers. Dejected, he leaves the office building, convinced that they were never meant to be. But fate has other plans.
John Kahrs, the director and longtime animation vet, wanted to push the medium into bold new territory, gleefully abandoning tradition to create something that mixes the tried-and-true with the completely new. Not only is the black-and-white modernist style of the animation striking and different than most of what you see (in both short-form and feature animation), but the animation approach is decidedly cutting edge. Kahrs folded a two-dimensional image on top of a three-dimensional shape, inventing a hybrid form that has the warmth and artistry of traditional animation with the fluid movement and shape of computer animation. The results are breathtaking and could, if properly applied to a feature-length project, be the new face of traditional animation (right now the division is temporarily shuttered after the less-than-spectacular box office from films “Princess and the Frog” and “Winnie the Pooh“). For traditional hand drawn animation, an evolutionary leap needed to be made. This was it.
Initially it’s hard to figure out what the style really does for the film, but it’s instantly involving in a way that, say, the DreamWorks Animation movies, for all their gilded sheen, can never accomplish. The narrative is lovingly draped in heartache (aided by a score from composer Christophe Beck) and the designs of the characters identifiable and easily emotive. Much of animation is purely interested in the dazzle, and there’s a fair argument to be made that “Paperman” is simply a research-and-development test, to see if this merging would actually work. But it’s very apparent that this is not simply some exercise in experimental newness; that this bold approach is here for a reason. “Paperman” is both touching and dizzying and it’s hard not to get choked up, to have your head spin like one of those paper airplanes caught in a whirlwind, even if, at its heart, it is some elaborate proof-of-concept. But even in its brief running time, it makes an impression. [A]