“Everyone’s story matters,” according to Morris Lessmore, a lifelong lover of books and the title character of William Joyce’s The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore. That’s certainly a worthy notion, and it has made me a champion of this particular story since the animated short film first won an Academy Award in February, 2012. In June, Scholastic published the picture book version.
The app, developed by Joyce’s own Moonbot Studios (2011), is a hybrid of the short film and the picture book. As in the film, music and animation move the story along, providing a cinematic flow. But, like the picture book, the app also includes a textual story to follow and still images to view. This combination, with the addition of evenly paced narration and interactive features, sets the app version of Morris Lessmore apart from its companions.
By now the story is familiar to many: Morris Lessmore loves stories and surrounds himself with books. When a terrible storm destroys his home, he is left to wander. He encounters a woman with flying books and follows one of the volumes to a library, where he spends many years caring for the books and sharing them with others. When he finally departs the library, he leaves his own story behind. A little girl finds it and starts reading, bringing the tale full-circle.
The app relies on user participation throughout the story to advance (or enhance) the narrative. Sometimes this interaction is as simple as turning the pages or tapping highlighted images on the screen to make them move, change, or produce sound (i.e., opening a door for Morris to fall through, or having him throw a book in the air to make it fly).
More elaborate activities invite users to play the story’s musical motif “Pop Goes the Weasel” on a piano keyboard, write on the pages of a book, put together a puzzle, or make Morris fly (by tilting their device). This flying activity — meant to represent the theme of losing oneself among the words in a book — is a little awkward to maneuver, and doesn’t quite produce the desired effect of flying through a story (the words don’t move past Morris as you’re flying him around the screen). Regardless, it’s obvious from the app’s variety of interactive features that Moonbot Studios is pushing the boundaries of app innovation and presentation.
My favorite interactive feature involves helping Morris hand out books to library patrons. When a book — either A Christmas Carol, Treasure Island, Frankenstein, or Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland — is given to one of the three individuals in line, that person changes from grayscale to full color (a metaphor used throughout the story to illustrate how reading can brighten lives). Suddenly dressed like a character from that book, the patron quotes one of the character’s lines; the transformations are humorous to say the least. Other allusions to famous tales occur earlier in the narrative; when Morris enters the library for the first time, users tap the books to hear famous lines by Shakespeare, Twain, Dickens, Fitzgerald, Poe, and Conan Doyle.
The easy-to-access settings menu gives control over music, narration, language, and text, making this a very user-friendly app. Some cool extra features: users can watch the award-winning animated short film in its entirety along with an additional “making of” video.
I found this app, like the film and book, to be a story worth telling — I’m happy to have the opportunity to experience it in a range of different formats. I think Morris would be, too. Available for iPhone, iPod touch, and iPad, $4.99 in the App Store.
A separate IMAG-N-O-TRON app (requires later generations of Apple devices with iOS5 and a WiFi connection; $0.99) allows users to point their device at a page of the print book and watch it come to life on the screen.