Paperman: Disney’s new style invokes the old magic.

This is Paperman. The Oscar-nominated short playing before the Oscar-Nominated Wreck-it Ralph, Disney has just released it on youtube prior to its night in the spotlight, at the 2013 Academy awards. Its really quite something.

These shorts are Pixar’s classic testbed for innovative animated story-telling, going as far back as Luxo Jr., the iconic little lamp that represents everything Pixar (and Disney, these days)has become. These perennially beloved shorts are a fantastic indicator of how technology is progressing, and often, can indicate the “look” of future films. This one excites me, because it looks like a return to some classic Disney style.

Luxo Jr.

Pixar has always stood for animated innovation, and has provided some of the biggest leaps in Computer-generated visualisation, from anthropomorphic office appliances to the astonishing breakthroughs of Macro vs. Micro of A Bug’s Life, individual hair rendition in Monsters, Inc., and the continual improvement of nature, ever more powerfully realised in Pixar’s glorious hyper-realism.

Note, I keep calling it Pixar. These days, its all under the Disney Banner, but then, so is Star Wars, and even if they force us to rename it Disney’s Star Wars episode XCIII (The Franchise Strikes Back), spare a thought for the minds who’ve made it possible, not just the corporate types who package it.

John Kahrs, who started work on a Bug’s life in 1998, now directing his first Disney Pixar short.

The work of first-time director John Khars, Paperman uses a brand new animating technique that is designed to blend hand-drawn cartoons with powerful computer processing and rendering. The effect is a return to the feel of classic Disney; elements of the neo-gothic, art-deco world of the Incredibles meets the newer, more dynamic human elements that worked so nicely in Ratatouille and Up!. There’s room for some Disney magic though; and it is this thoughtful incorporation of magic-realism that has always made Disney one of the greatest production houses; conceptually and visually their work has retained a simple, thoughtful elegance.

However, for the first time since Pixar’s incorporation, the last few years of Disney have been less stunning, and perhaps more disappointing than we’ve come to expect. They set the bar astronomically high, so some were bound to fall short, but given Disney’s recent track record, including Cars 2, John Carter and Bolt, Disney has had a higher failure rate than usual recently. Brave has been critically divisive (though some see it as a return to form), and, to be honest, I’ve been getting a little tired of some of Disney’s more recent stuff.

The two best (and worst) examples for me come from two of Disney’s most successful recent films; WALL.E and Up!.  Two of the most stunning, innovative, beautiful films of recent years. Yet I can’t reconcile myself to them as a whole. Because in both cases, some of the most astonishing pieces of storytelling in recent years have been let down by flaccid appeals to childish humour, childish morality, childish marketing. And that’s a shame, because Disney has never been Childish. It has always been Childlike. There’s a crucial difference.

Stunning. Just Stunning. Even in the pirated copy someone lent me when I saw in a crowded hospital ward in 2008, the magic was there.

Let’s start with WALL.E. I’m sure that many people are going to be furious that I’ve dared slate it, or Up!, and they’re right to- I’m not entirely comfortably with slating it myself. But I can’t reconcile the second half with the first. The first half, a glorious 50 minutes of contemporary silent film, proving Disney Pixar as one of the greatest studios on the planet, was an epic feast of ideas, details and quirky humour that appealed to all generations. Once humanity got involved, however, it started to go a bit weak at the knees. Sure, it was a cute idea for mankind’s dystopian fall to end up with us all bloated, boneless and atrophied, but ultimately, the whole passage with the humans took away from the sheer humanity of the story. Between two robots. What that says about our ability to articulate ourselves, I’m not quite sure. Anyhow, I still loved WALL.E, but surely they could’ve been that little bit more ambitious, that little bit more daring, and done what humanity in the film did- respectfully relinquish control of their old home, accept that they’ve done enough damage, and leave it to the charms of a quirky little garbage-bot?

As for Up!, now, I’m a bit of a stoic. I find it easier to write down an emotional experience than go through it myself. But Up! has come closer than pretty much anything to getting the better of me. The first 10 minutes, that is. The first 10 minutes of Up! bring me closer to a pass-me-the-chocolates-and-gimme-a-hug moment than pretty anything else. And then the rest of the film happens. That whole sad, sorry plotline involving a squaking prehistoric birds, crude fat-boy jokes and cameo appearances from Yogi Bear and Alvin and chipmunks, lending their vocal “talent” to a pack of talking dogs. TALKING. DOGS. We don’t need it. We don’t need the silly appeal to marketable children’s merchandise. We don’t need the betrayal of all that emotional weight invested in the film. There was a better way to do Up! One that didn’t need that annoying ! every time I write its title. One that was more faithful to those 10 minutes, without drawing on those tired, childish stereotypes.

Up!’s beauty was in its magical opening act; the film was tarnished from thereon in by that bloody talking dog.

In recent years, Disney seems to have grown afraid of its audience. It seems to doubt childrens’ ability to appreciate emotional truth. So it has dropped away from the Childlike fascination with the world, the Childlike sense of impervious in encountering the impossible, and the Childlike wonder at the magic of stories. Its gone, instead, for cheap, childish humour that singles out a tiny proportion of the Disney demographic, offers them a cheap laugh and a toy to go with it, and leaves the rest cold. These films won’t stand the test of time.

But you know what? I think Paperman might signal a return to form. Disney’s next big project is 1952- or at least it was, until they revealed this week its actually going to be called Tomorrowland. After the theme park ride. But instead of pulling my hair out and banging head-against-table, I’m holding out hope. Because if it can hold on to the charm, the simple return to a Childlike fascination with a magical-realist world, then maybe it might just be Disney’s next masterpiece.


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