It's awfully special to be an animation buff who gets to be aware that the film you're watching right now is, no big deal, just one of the most technologically advanced cartoons ever made. And the staggering thing is that it's happened twice in 2012: first with ParaNorman, which raised the bar on stop-motion animation to a height that I didn't even know existed, and now with Paperman, a proof-of-concept short film made basically on a lark by some Disney animators with a bit of downtime, that emerges as one of the most astounding strides forward in mainstream animation technique since the 1990s (so the key, young animators, is this: give your project a multisyllabic single-world title beginning with "P" and ending with "man", and your off to the races). And all of it unassumingly hiding in plain sight within a seven-minute silent love story that is primarily notable for being the most grown-up narrative that I can recall ever having been produced by Walt Disney Animation Studios, greeted with obvious enthusiasm by the adults and equally obvious impatience by their children at the theater where I saw the film, attached to the infinitely more kiddie-friendly Wreck-It Ralph. About which pairing I can only say: that was some seriously bad planning, Disney.

Since the technique is why we're here, let's start with that: it was during the production of Tangled that animator John Kahrs got to pondering how to address what was one of the great problems of that film's creation: the uncertain marriage of fully-rendered CGI with a hand-drawn aesthetic. The solution came in the form of a new piece of software designed by Bill Whited, called Meander: long story short, it permits animators to "paint" 2-D images onto rendered models, creating an effect that looks for all the world like traditional-style cell animation, but with a fullness and depth more typical of CG (and I bet it looks both weird and stunning in a 3-D projection, but that is not, alas, the way I saw it).

Presumably, there are limitless ways this can be explored by different artists; but for Kahrs, who writes and the directs, the goal was to be a complete throwback, and Paperman is a glorious explosion of rough linework and scratchy, pencilled-in shapes. Kahrs (whose interviews reveal an immensely pleasing knowledge of animation history, and it seems to me that he's going to be great for Disney if they don't drive him away) like to name-drop Milt Kahl in interviews, and it's easy enough to see the '60s & '70s Xerox style of Disney animation given a glossy computer-age facelift in Paperman, so what we're looking at is CGI that evokes 2-D cel animation that evokes pencil-on-paper. And does it beautifully, let's be absolutely clear about that.

The question is, of course, why the hell does anybody who isn't a tech geek care about all of this? So glad you asked, fictional interlocutor I made up for rhetorical purposes. The reason we care is that it allows for unprecedented accuracy and clarity in depicting the animators' work with the least amount of separation from the audience, and that means that their work can hit us closer to home, if you will. After all, animation - leastways, American-style character animation of the sort practiced at Disney, which is what we're gathered to talk about - is all about acting with drawings, and the point of these things is not just to ooh and aah at pretty pictures, but to be moved by those pictures in just the same way as we are moved by flesh-and-blood actors doing the same things; if not indeed moreso, since by being so blatantly unreal, animation is able to sneak through our intellectual defenses more easily than live action can (in one interview, Kahrs speaks of his experience watching pencil tests for Beauty and the Beast, and being floored by how much emotional energy Mark Henn was able to bring out in just a handful of quick marks). And on this front, Paperman is an unabashed success, depicting its two central characters with considerable flexibility an minuteness of detail that is appealing both on a graphic level (I'm particularly in love with the shading on the female lead's hair), and on a storytelling level as well, with feelings expressed delicately but clearly.

And let's be entirely clear: all that is great, and I'm legitimately as excited about Paperman as any other animated work I've seen in 2012. But if this was meant to be a tech demo, well, it shows. The idea for the story has apparently been kicking around in Kahrs's head, which is honestly quite strange given how little there actually is to it: boy and girl meet on an elevated train platform, the wind blows a sheet of paper from his arms into her face, leaving a lipstick mark - the only color in this otherwise coolly black-and-white film is the vigorous scarlet of her lips - but before he has a chance to react, she's gone on another train; when he spots her in the building across the street from his office, he goes through a huge stack of forms trying to get her attention with a paper airplane, but it doesn't work, and it falls to a huge and sort of silly piece of magical realism to get them together. Obviously, in seven minutes, we're not looking for a work of the psychological complexity of The Brothers Karamazov, but "boy meets girl, boy loses girl, magical wind helps the boy get girl back" is hardly a story begging to be told, even if its mustiness matches the undefined mid-century setting of the piece, and its hugely enthusiastic embrace of old-fashioned style. It's sweet, and the utter sincerity with which Kahrs tells the story helps, but it's still awfully simplistic and almost pointedly light on character depth. As easy as it is to get excited about Paperman on its visual merits, it's even easier to predict that we'll see more films using the same techniques in an even more refined way, and the odds are that one of those will have a bit more complexity and insight to it. I love this movie's look, but that's all I love about it, and I look forward to loving the projects that follow in its wake even more.