One of the few certainties in life is that, when an animator is left alone to do their own thing, they will immediately set to work on a dialogue-free short about a lonely man in a room.
It’s not easy to say why this is. Animators have a reputation as solitary creatures, but the ones I know are social butterflies compared to writers and programmers. It may well be that animation is hard, so melancholic pathos seems more appealing when all that is needed is a second of stillness followed by a droop of the eyes. Whatever the reason, a dialogue-free animation about loneliness can still be a perfectly valid thing. The opening sections of Up and Wall-E are both variations on this theme, and for me they are my favourite part of those films.
Yet the fact remains that animators’ fondness for this form is noticeably greater than that of audiences. If in doubt, ask a commissiong editor how they react when they hear the phrase “animator’s passion project”.
Which brings us back to The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore. As I mentioned in this post here, this animated storybook is let down by a story which I believe I described as “hokey old arse”. It goes like this: Morris Lessmore is a young man who likes order. Some vague unnamed event happens which turns his life upside down, so he finds solace in reading a book about Humpty Dumpty. He then moves into a library, spends his entire life with books, grows old and dies. The twist at the end is that he had been writing a book himself, about his life, which a little girl finds at the end. All this is smothered in the message “books are magic” and “everyone is special”, but as each entry in Morris’ book presumably reads “sat alone and read books again today”, it’s possible that the whole thing is essentially sarcastic.
It’s not a story that seems aimed at picture book-age children. There is no antagonist, other than the process of ageing, and the main character is an entirely reactive protagonist that it is hard to care about. There are no jokes. The emotional core, a bitter-sweet meditation on ageing and death, is not something that five-year olds will relate to. The sections about caring and repairing books will reinforce, to a young mind, the idea that books are hard work. There is something to be said for stressing the value of books to that age group, but that is best done by exposing children to good stories rather than bad ones.
So, why was so much work put into bringing that particular story to fruition? It’s entirely possible that developers Moonbot were being very clever, and that the target audience was never intended to be children. It’s possible that the book exists to make as big a splash for the studio as possible, and that the target audience was always animation lecturers, Apple early-adopters and excitable journalists.
Then again, they may have made the fatal mistake of showing the story to their 5 year old children, asking them what they think, and hence genuinely believe that it’s a story children love. Children at this age always give the answer that adults want to hear, and it is to the childs great credit how accurately they can deduce what this is. (Rather awkwardly, the only real way you can tell whether a children’s story is a success is to wait thirty years and ask the now-grown reader if they remember it, then watch to see if their face lights up.)
But while Morris Lessmore claims to be a celebration of the magic of stories, it is a celebration of the magic of images. And that is no bad thing. It is an “animator’s narrative”, where a string of lovely, striking, memorable images are strung together and called a story. Look at the care and craftsmanship that has gone into the visual side of Morris Lessmore:
Now – all this raises an interesting point about the current state of tablet books.
If you look at who is working in the medium of tablet books, then you’ll see that illustrators and animators are doing themselves proud. Also present and correct are coders, digital developers and eager start-up businessmen. All these people have stepped up, experiemented and are trying new things. What you won’t find are that many established writers. Indeed, looking at most of the tablet books I’ll be talking about over the next few weeks, the majority are adaptations of existing printed text.
Why is this? Writers are usually quick to sniff out a chance of an audience. They have been quick to embrace Kindle self publishing and experiment with Twitter novels, but there is a noticeable lack of writers writing specifically for tablet books. In part, this may be due to a lack of contacts or programming skills. Digital developers tend to work more closely with illustrators than writers.
But it may also be because writers do not yet see any potential in the format, or see how a tablet book could be a better narrative than a normal one. And if this is the case, then it could be a serious issue.
Because if tablet books are to prosper, they will need writers to take the lead.