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The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore

by Lisa Adamowicz Kless

A few of the big winners at this year’s Academy Awards (Hugo and The Artist, for example) played up the nostalgia of a time before “talkies“ were the norm, giving a nod to silent cinema. Sitting just as quietly in the Best Animated Short Film category though was a lovely little creation that was co-directed by Brandon Oldenburg and children's book author and illustrator, William Joyce. Collaborators for over a decade, Oldenburg has a background in puppetry, with his credits including work in the art department and on visual effects for Robots, Spy Kids 2, and television movies, and in animation for the film Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium. In addition to writing over fifty children’s books, Joyce was also the producer of Robots, Meet the Robinsons, and the children’s television series Rolie Polie Olie. But it was their team effort on The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore that allowed them to walk away with Academy Awards after they won the above mentioned category of Best Animated Short Film. Charming and poignant in its utter lack of dialogue, the heft of the story relies mainly on that very absence of words; a bit odd, it may seem, for a plot that centers around books. Yet it’s the storyline and cinematography that carry the emotion, running the gamut from nostalgic to melancholy to funny, and some points in between, beckoning the viewer to experience it all right along with the characters. Music is crucial too, and is expertly used to heighten emotion and storyline in all of the right places.

Oldenburg and Joyce celebrate their win (Photo by Steve Granitz – © 2012 Steve Granitz)

Co-founded by Joyce and Oldenburg, the team at Moonbot Studios worked on the film using a variety of animation techniques: CGI, 2D animation and stop motion among them, with the short made entirely in the state of Louisiana. Based in Shreveport, the studio employs about thirty-five people, and, based on the clip below and another I saw, looks like an incredibly interesting and fun place for any creative person to work.

The plot of the short is set in a town that looks unmistakably like New Orleans, Louisiana, and that was definitely intentional. Joyce had already written the bare bones of the story, but was prompted to start work on the film in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Centering on titular character Mr. Morris Lessmore, viewers meet the young man (with more than a passing resemblance to silent film star Buster Keaton) as he sits surrounded by piles of books, writing in his journal. Morris is so engrossed in this private world of his that he doesn’t notice a very Wizard of Oz-like storm start to sweep in until it’s too late, complete with a frantically peddling bicyclist who passes by while caught up in the gale. When all is said and done and the people and contents of the city are abruptly tossed back to the ground, Morris is left with only one precious item: his journal, now empty after the winds blew all of his writing away. Heartbroken and unsure of what to do next, he views the devastation around him as he walks along, until he has a puzzling and magical encounter. Afterwards, Morris is guided on by Humpty Dumpty, very whimsically and literally portrayed in flip book fashion. (I won’t go into more details about the plot of the film, since it’s a short and any more information might spoil it for those who haven’t seen it yet.)

For me, there’s so much to love about this little film that I have to fight to keep it concise here. The details in the animation and special effects are simply exquisite. Going back to the character of Humpty Dumpty, I’m enthralled with the way that they managed to bring out so much strong emotion in his face as the pages of his book flip by. The same holds true in the more subtle range of Morris himself; the nuances of his facial features convey exactly what they need to, since he never speaks a word throughout the short. Then there are the touching, sometimes heartrending metaphors and allegories. One can’t help but see the parallel between the “rebuilding” of Morris’ life and that of those in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, or any disaster anywhere in the world. You can also draw a comparison to Morris’ solitude amongst the books and how some may withdraw into themselves when struggling with sadness or hardship. It’s through finally connecting with his neighbors and sharing what gives him joy that he helps to literally bring color and happiness back to his community and himself. Writers and others who love the written word will find even more meaning in the relationship between Morris and the stories he treasures so much.

Joyce and Oldenburg said that they set out to create a film that paid homage to the power of story and the transformational effect it can sometimes have on people's lives.  That intention shines through, with no doubt countless hours spent painstakingly creating storyboards, building elaborate sets, generating the spectacular computer animation and all of the other elements needed to bring this story to life.  Anyone who has ever delighted in being read a favorite story as a child, or has appreciated the heft and feel of a well-loved book in their hands as they settle in to get lost in the pages will instinctively feel the creators' intentions as they watch this film.  Hopefully, like Morris, they'll be transformed at the end too; maybe not as drastically as he was, but at least with a renewed sense that it's not just in books that anything is possible.

For more information visit Moonbot Studios: www.moonbotstudios.com