Amazing, wouldn’t you say? Certainly there are no shortage of people reaching for the hyperboles. Here’s Ben Machell in The Times:
“It is not inconceivable that, at some point in the future, a short children’s story called The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr Morris Lessmore will be regarded as one of the most influential titles of the early 21st century.”
That’s quite some claim.
I’m going to have to start by mentioning the elephant in the room here. As a story, and assuming that it’s a story aimed at children, this is a load of hokey old arse. I’m going to do a separate post later to talk more about that, as the problems here shed wider light on tablet books as a whole. I do recognise that the user review section on iTunes is full of gushing 5-star reviews and I’m not trying to be deliberately contrary, but the disconnect between audience and storyteller does need to be looked at.
So, that significant problem aside, what have we got? It’s a short story, one with 27 “pages” that takes about 15 minutes to go through, so a good length for a bedtime story. Each page has a few lines of text, which by default are read aloud to you, and an animated picture that you can interact with to produce a surprising result.
What this is, essentially, is the ‘lift-the-flap book’ model of tablet books. You read a page, and then look around the picture for something to ‘do’, and once that’s done you move on to the next page. It’s a good model to work to; lift-the-flap books are always a hit with pre-schoolers, who like both the element of surprise as to what they will find, plus the element of control in that it was they who lifted the flap and caused the picture to change. And here is a model that allows tablet books to be an improvement on physical books, as triggering an animation can be far more spectacular and page-changing that going from one image to the image hidden underneath.
So how does this work in practice? There’s an ‘everything but the kitchen sink’ feel to the interactive elements. On most of the pages, you blindly stab about at parts of the image to see if they will do anything. On some pages, the parts that will trigger an event glow briefly to highlight what to touch, but this isn’t consistent throughout. There are many times you find yourself accidentally turning to the previous or next page as you attempt to trigger actions in the part of the screen reserved for page turns. Some items just need to be touched, others need specific swipe motions. Some images ‘reset’ after the triggered animation, others don’t. It doesn’t have that consistent logic that pleases preschoolers, especially boys. Having watch a number of people try it out, there is definitely a ‘stumbling blindly’ problem with the interaction.
Then there are triggerable events that are more like ‘mini games’ – a book opens to reveal a ripped picture that you must reassemble, a tune needs to be played on a piano, you can fly Morris around the page by tilting the pad and so on. There’s an admirable sense of trying everything out here, although by and large they do seem unconnected to the story – random diversions rather than necessary progressions. The triggered animations are the same every time, incidentally.
The music, as you can hear in the clip above, it fantastic. The voiceover made me cringe, although this may just be cultural, and it can be turned off. (The issue of tablet books that read themselves to you will need to be a separate post, incidentally. It is by-and-large the norm for children’s tablet books, but I wonder if it is has a negative impact on the experience.) The app seems sensibly priced, at £2.99.
And it is beautiful. The craft on display is unarguable (even if cruel-hearted animation folk like myself will take a certain pleasure in pointing out when it is less than perfect, such as when Morris’ arm glitches as he leaves the room of books – I know, I know. We can’t help ourselves). Visually there is a strong echo of 1930s Hollywood, of a romanticised, simpler world devoid of such modern horrors as iPads and tablet books. The visuals keep the ‘chuck everything in’ approach of the interactive stuff, and mix CG, models, and hand-drawn animation, but they all hang together very well. The visual side is led by William Joyce, and it is a wonderful thing that artists of his calibre are working in this genre. It promises great things for the future.
The result is one of those ‘buy to show people’ apps, one which you use to show off your new iPad rather than read for pleasure. The Medium overwhelms the Message, but it does have the air of something new emerging, of something that will trouble the dreams of more conservative publishers. In many ways The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore is a triumph but, unfortunately, not in every aspect, and arguably not in the most important aspects. Which I will talk about soon in a new post.