Film analysis, seeing something deeper than surface-story in a movie, can be daunting to some who see it either as a natural talent or over-thinking that will ruin their enjoyment of the story. That talent is cultivated, though, and easy to begin. And the end result is a greater appreciation for the films you already love. An analysis starts with observations. Once you’ve made enough, look for connections that bring up recurring themes. Ask how those themes play into the events of the story, and you’re own your way to a deeper understanding of a film’s message and effect.
Consider Disney’s animated short, Paperman. The characters make for great surface observations. The paperman himself is far thinner than every other character, a mere toothpick of a man. The wind from a train blows him to the side in the opening scene, and a large mass of paper airplanes physically tosses him around in the end.
So wind is present both in the first and last scene. In fact, it’s blowing around paper all through the film. What does wind usually symbolize? We have sayings about it: winds of change, go wherever the wind takes you, etc. Wind is fate—destiny, and that makes sense for the story in Paperman, as our main character follows his own destiny throughout the film. More than any other character, he can be blown by the winds of fate because he is so thin. Other characters, especially his boss, appear as large trunks in their character design, planted and solid. They never even move all of their bodies at once. Of course the film isn’t suggesting that only thin people can find their destiny. But maybe being thin in this film is a metaphor for some other quality, like faith.
That brings us to the paperman’s eyes. They are wider than those of every other character except one. We also have a saying about big eyes: wide-eyed. Jaded people use it to mean naïve, but in fictional characters it can mean innocence and full of faith (see every Disney princess ever). Paper man doesn’t have the squinty eyes of other characters. His are open wide enough to see the young woman who walks into his life, to see her in the building across the street—to see his destiny calling. And what about the one character with bigger eyes than his, the girl? She only needs one paper airplane to lead her to their destiny in the end, while he requires many to forcibly maneuver him.
We’ve used the word paper over and over again. It’s even in the title. Paper comes from trees, and we’ve also used words like planted and toothpick that pertain to trees or wood. Isn’t the oppressive boss, the one who keeps pushing around paperman, chewing on a toothpick every time we see him? The symbolism begins to present itself. The film uses incarnations of wood as a metaphor for a young man who must choose whether or not he will remain a toothpick, chewed on by his boss and become hunched over and unmovable like his coworkers, unable to dream or see more to life around him. He chooses instead to become a paper airplane and sail on the winds of destiny to find true love. Even when he becomes discouraged, the destiny he’s had such faith in carries him there anyway.
Now that you know how, you could keep going (Look at the setting, for instance. The film begins and ends at a train station, a crossroads. How is that a significant contrast to the one way street between paperman’s building and the one in which he sees the young woman?) but you get the gist. By analyzing the decisions the filmmakers made to tell the story, the film transforms from just a charming and emotional tale of one man finding his destiny to a message that would help us find our own. In our daily lives, subject to their own necessities and authorities, we can be ruled and beaten down, or we can maintain or own unique faith in destiny, however we define it. We can see life between the lines and maintain hope. We can be ready for positive change when we come to a crossroads so those winds don’t pass us by.