~ Posted by Nicholas Barber, February 6th 2013

Disney’s new cartoon, "Wreck-It Ralph", is in danger of being overshadowed by the six-minute short which is screened before it. Both cartoons are Oscar-nominated, but while "Wreck-It Ralph" is the usual frenzy of kaleidoscopic chase sequences, "Paperman" (above) is a different beast. It’s got no dialogue, it’s in black-and-white—or, to be more accurate, it’s in 50 shades of grey—and it showcases Disney’s new Meander technology, which allows animators to merge line drawings with computer-generated images. This technology gives the film a far more distinctive look than that of the average Disney cartoon. Comics-savvy viewers may be reminded of Will Eisner’s New York cityscapes, or of such bande-dessinée masters as Peyo and Morris.

Already, there’s been a flurry of articles declaring that Meander will change the face of animation. But there’s another aspect of the cartoon which is just as revolutionary, and that’s its subject matter. "Paperman" is a sweet romantic comedy about two lovelorn office workers, without a fairy princess or a talking animal in sight. It is, in other words, a cartoon that’s targeted at grown-ups.

In Hollywood terms, it’s daring to devote even six minutes of animation to adults, rather than their offspring, but, judging by the acclaim that’s being heaped on "Paperman", the gamble has paid off. The question is, then, when will someone produce an entire feature-length cartoon with an adult audience in mind? There have been a few experiments in recent years, the most memorable being Richard Linklater’s two rotoscoped hallucinations, "Waking Life" and "A Scanner Darkly". But Disney, Pixar, Dreamworks and their competitors have all been wary of making a mainstream film that just happens to be a cartoon. Studios in other countries have been bolder. From Spain, there was "Chico & Rita", a sizzling saga of lust and jazz in 1940s Cuba. From Israel and France there were two docu-cartoons set in the Middle East, "Waltz with Bashir" and "Persepolis". Japan regularly turns out animes which are highly unsuitable for younger viewers. And, this week, there’s a British cartoon with a 15 certificate, "A Liar’s Autobiography: The Untrue Story of Monty Python’s Graham Chapman". Hollywood is falling behind.

A studio accountant might point out that animation is prohibitively expensive compared to live-action filming, so it’s risky to bankroll a cartoon that can’t be underwritten by a range of tie-in toothbrushes. But let’s not forget that "The Artist" was an Oscar-winning hit, despite being a black-and-white silent movie. There’s no reason why John Kahrs, the director of "Paperman", can’t make an animated film which is just as charming and vivacious. The standard compliment paid to any cartoon in the post-"Toy Story" era is that while it might be aimed at children, adults can enjoy it, too. How long will it be before a cartoon merits that very accolade, except with the words "children" and "adults" swapped around?

Nicholas Barber is a film critic for the Independent on Sunday. His most recent posts for the Editors' Blog include Call yourself a sushi chef and The Rushdie ratings.