This one isn’t about a game.
This one is about old books, old movies, and new technology. It's about a simple but nimble yarn, adapted and presented in different formats, its essence preserved in each.
It’s about old inspiring new, and new amplifying old. It’s about different storytelling traditions coexisting on a spectrum of expressive possibilities, each standing on its own, while supporting and enhancing the other.
This is about The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore, one of the best short films I’ve seen, one of the best interactive books I’ve read, and one of the most elegant iPad apps I’ve encountered. Before going on, I encourage you to watch the trailer below, which effectively conveys the spirit of the story.
Homage hunters will find many easy targets in Morris Lessmore. Morris himself is a dead-ringer for Buster Keaton, and the animators do a wonderful job of capturing Keaton’s gait, stone-face, and expressive eyes - they even manage to reproduce his trademark corkscrew pratfall. The hurricane sequence in Keaton’s classic Steamboat Bill, Jr. inspires the opening minutes of Morris Lessmore.
The film’s playful mix of color with black and white cinematography (and spinning house) are a nod to The Wizard of Oz, and its overall visual style draws from a wealth of Technicolor musicals from Hollywood’s heyday.
But the most distinctive aspect of Morris Lessmore’s art style is its use of old-school miniatures and 2D animation, blended with Pixar-style computer animation. (Director William Joyce is a former Pixar animator.) As a result, the film manages to look both old and new at the same time, and the familiar Pixar sheen is mottled with dust.
Morris Lessmore, the iPad app, is a brilliant translation of the film into an interactive storybook for kids and adults. Unlike many other e-books I’ve seen, these elements don’t feel like bolted-on afterthoughts.
Page after page, the reader is presented with ways to interact with the world of the story, much as Morris does, through exploration and discovery. Nearly all of these are optional, and the reader can choose to have the entire story read aloud with no interactions at all, if she wishes.
But the best way to experience The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore is to simply play and see what happens. My 3-year-old daughter and I have read the book together a dozen times or more, and each reading unfolds like a new adventure to her.
She’s engaged in a kind of reading that encourages her to think about why the books talk, and why it’s important to help them find their way home. This is far more compelling than the “touch the monkey to make him jump” routine that passes for interactivity in most of the e-books I’ve seen.
Ultimately, Morris Lessmore is about loving books and passing that love onto others. That’s the ‘message’ of the film/storybook, and it’s a wonderful message to share. But Morris Lessmore is also about loving silent movies and Buster Keaton and pork pie hats; it’s about loving animation and exquisite art design; it’s about loving Star Trek come-true technology that lets us play and read and explore together on a device that still feels like a small miracle to me.
When I read The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore with my daughter on my lap, each of these loves are in play, each brings me joy, and I’m grateful for all of them....plus one more. The one on my lap.