The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore (SLYT)
April 3, 2012 1:41 PM   Subscribe

This film Was nominated (and won) the Oscar for best animated short feature. If you love books and words then this silent 15 minute piece is worth your time. Here is the backstory.
posted by Michael_H (27 comments total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
I have this in an app version on my Ipad. I still haven't tired of it.
posted by bearwife at 1:53 PM on April 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

I saw this in the theater (along with the other top nominees) and it clearly deserved to win. Just amazing.
posted by poe at 1:53 PM on April 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

posted by stbalbach at 1:58 PM on April 3, 2012

Saw this in the theater. (Everyone, keep an eye out for the yearly Oscar Animated Shorts revue, which shows up in movie theaters in late winter - it's pretty much guaranteed to include at least one gem.)

It is lovely and charming. The Humpty Dumpty book is genius. And of course, who doesn't like to see Buster Keaton show up. Go watch it.

I want to bring up a criticism and discuss it here - so if you are charmed and don't want the bubble burst, skip this! I don't want to spoil the niceness of this for anyone.

After seeing this, I felt like there was something odd about it - it is great in some ways, but in other ways is... lacking? It sets up this great sequence of the storm and the loss, which is its own thing that warrants exploration. Then magic takes Morris to the magic library, which again begs for exploration. So we have two really interesting environments with great visuals and lots of thoughtful touches. But in terms of the actual story, somehow it doesn't grip. No tension or obstacle to overcome or something? It's odd, because of course he has to overcome the storm...but maybe the problem is that he overcomes it at the halfway point of the film, and then we spend a bunch of time exploring this other (lovely) environment with no dramatic thing at stake.

I wonder if also there is something that doesn't work about the Buster Keaton character when he's animated - like, he's this blank mask of perseverance against all obstacles, and we know he loves books, but for animation maybe we need something more/different from a character?

Watching it, and contrasting it with Pixar's short from this year (La Luna), I was struck by how hard it is to do an animated short right. The Pixar one is sweet and lovely (like this one) with charming characters (again, like this one), but resolves more satisfyingly as a story, despite being (I think) much shorter.

I'm glad this one won - I think it's great that an independent studio was able to put this very ambitious and charming film together and there's a lot to like about it. But I'm wondering if anyone else had the same feeling that there is something lacking here and can help me figure out what it is.
posted by LobsterMitten at 1:58 PM on April 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

That was some of the best work Buster Keaton has ever done.
posted by crunchland at 2:00 PM on April 3, 2012

I haven't seen the app, so maybe that is actually a better use for these terrific environments - a self- guided tour of the lovely charming things?
posted by LobsterMitten at 2:00 PM on April 3, 2012

But I'm wondering if anyone else had the same feeling that there is something lacking here and can help me figure out what it is.

Yes! I feel this way about a lot of animated CGI shorts. I think it's a shortcoming in the scripts usually, as if people care more about visual gags and cool effects these days than good storytelling. The problem with this story for me was there wasn't enough setup/character development to earn the emotional moments. The pacing felt off. For example, the part where the protagonist walks through a deserted wasteland after the storm is obviously supposed to make us feel sad but I think it comes too early for us to really care.
posted by timsneezed at 2:15 PM on April 3, 2012

Wow, I saw the shorts too and I'm surprised this was the winner. Such a waste to put all that effort into the effects and not bother writing a story-- it was the Star Wars prequel of the lot. I agree about the lack of setup and character development. Also, the premise is deeply creepy without someone or something to explain it for us-- the main character is whisked away by eyeless, faceless, flapping books to a magical library in the woods, and we never learn why. There's no ancient curse he has to break, no benevolent but hermit-like wizard who brought his books to life, no explanation from the Humpty book as to why (*spoiler* this haunted house of books has abducted him to spend the rest of his natural life there *spoiler*).

And the guy is just... cool with it. We never see him freak out, beg to be returned home, worry about loved ones, anything. It's like Hansel and Gretel get lost in the woods, forget about father, and live with the witch happily ever after because, hey, house made of candy!
posted by Dixon Ticonderoga at 2:49 PM on April 3, 2012 [4 favorites]

So it's basically a low-key horror story about a library that somehow causes the destruction of cities to recruit caretakers which it eventually sends off into some unseen terror, presumably for the rest of eternity?

The "fantastic" flying books were pretty freaky.
posted by owtytrof at 2:54 PM on April 3, 2012 [3 favorites]

Damn, I totally didin't refresh to see Dixon Ticonderoga's comment before I made mine.
posted by owtytrof at 2:55 PM on April 3, 2012

Is it strange that I thought it was wonderful that there was no explanation?

...It's sort of weird. Most times I watch movies, I'm the first guy to rag on stuff like this. Like--how the heck did he show up when the entrance was blocked, why did he go there anyway other than just to move the plot along, isn't it all a bit too coincidental--that sort of thing.

And yet, when it came to this short--like I said, it's strange, but I didn't mind. I guess I kind of like the idea that somewhere in this world there's a magic library collection that sets out to find like-minded individuals to care for it, without the whole thing being directed by some higher force like a wizard or a circle of ancient librarians or god or anybody at all.

The idea that--I don't know, I feel like a sap, here--that somewhere magical stuff happens, and there's nobody to thank and there's nobody to blame.

...Man, I don't even know. I'm no good with words. Maybe someone else can explain it better. I don't think I can.
posted by KChasm at 3:00 PM on April 3, 2012

Wait, so... Humpty Dumpty was the soul of that pretty girl?
posted by cmoj at 3:08 PM on April 3, 2012

It's definitely dream-logic as to why he ends up at the library and seems totally fine with it. So in that sense, this is a lovely illustration of a dream - scary bad thing that doesn't actually injure you, inexplicable interval of traveling with no destination in mind, suddenly arrive at destination, explore destination.
posted by LobsterMitten at 3:10 PM on April 3, 2012

A coworker and I saw this a while back, and we found the main character fairly inexpressive. I'm also surprised it won — I was rooting for "A Morning Stroll," personally.
posted by pmdboi at 3:16 PM on April 3, 2012

Damn, I totally didin't refresh to see Dixon Ticonderoga's comment before I made mine.

Eh, but you said it shorter and better.
posted by Dixon Ticonderoga at 3:21 PM on April 3, 2012

found the main character inexpressive

It's interesting, though - because it's copying Buster Keaton's stoneface character, whose whole thing is that he doesn't facially react to things that happen to him, and who is riveting to watch. So what's the difference?

Is it just a difference between live-action and animation? (Like, for an animated character you need facial reactions to make us care, whereas with a human we care automatically?) Or is it that in Keaton's movies, the man-vs-his-hostile-physical-environment scenarios are set up better?
posted by LobsterMitten at 3:46 PM on April 3, 2012

Buster Keaton had a face that was expressive even when pretty stationary just by virtue of his unusual features. A smooth, computer generated face isn't going to have the same natural presence, so it needs to compensate by being more expressive.
posted by timsneezed at 3:59 PM on April 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

Actually, this is a triple.
posted by holdkris99 at 4:43 PM on April 3, 2012

That really was fabulous.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 4:48 PM on April 3, 2012

Actually, this is a triple.

Sorry, still new at this-I did check the URL and nothing came up.
posted by Michael_H at 5:03 PM on April 3, 2012

(Everyone, keep an eye out for the yearly Oscar Animated Shorts revue, which shows up in movie theaters in late winter - it's pretty much guaranteed to include at least one gem.)

There are three sets of short films—animated, live action, and documentary—and I'm guessing they tend to travel together. I saw the animated films in an independent theater, and like several people upthread, I was fairly unimpressed by this one. I thought the Pixar film was far and away the best. I saw the documentary shorts in a museum theater. Most of these were moving/dusturbing/heart-breaking, and as a group, in my estimation, much better than the animations.
posted by -jf- at 5:47 PM on April 3, 2012

Sorry, still new at this-I did check the URL and nothing came up.

No worries. I've made like 5 successful posts and about 3 or 4 that were deleted as doubles. Personally I love the video and the fact that it has been posted here several times attests to its greatness. Cheers!
posted by holdkris99 at 6:09 PM on April 3, 2012

I was enjoying the video, then some vague meaning crawled out of it about the joys of time spent with books. And suddenly the video felt like a sinister trap designed to make me feel guilty. I was left regretting I'd just wasted eleven minutes watching a video instead of reading a book. So great video. But the book was better. Which was the point I guess.
posted by astrobiophysican at 7:34 PM on April 3, 2012

I love books. I love Buster Keaton. I've seen all the Oscar Nominated Animated Short Film programs for the last 5 years or so. And, I love William Joyce.

And for me, this short film was all schmaltz and no real heart, with some lovely conceptual scenes that never went anywhere real and would've been much more stunning with traditional rendering (see Joyce's other work for examples).

Honestly, it would have been better to do an entire short using only the Humpty Dumpty character, or the book doctoring, or something.

Maybe my years have jaded me. What was the story actually about? Man who likes books gets swept away to another place where he likes books, but differently? We don't see enough of him before the storm to get a sense of his character, and living in the magical book room does what, exactly? Why don't the people of the town take turns with the books? Isn't it cruel of the magical library to recruit a child? I guess the second link in the post claims to explain it, but it still doesn't click for me.
posted by redsparkler at 8:24 PM on April 3, 2012 [4 favorites]

The whole thing was just an allegory extolling the virtue of books; realism wasn't the point. Try to read into the characters or follow the events as you would if this were a traditional story and you'll come away unsatisfied. It's not about who the people are but what they stand for--and you can look at the events the same way. All of it is metaphor.

The approach is effective but underhanded; it's an essay disguised as a story--an opinion using the tools of fiction to express itself. You see it in a lot of shorts like this, but you also see it in a lot of literature--Ayn Rand is an insidious example of this.

Which I mean, it is what it is. I never find these sorts of things as meaningful or as satisfying as what I'll call 'true' stories--which involve deeply conflicted people and messy, complex plot lines. But they're important because they get us talking about and reflecting on what we value. The Hunger Games is a pretty good example, as the plot and characters don't present anything new--everything is familiar and predictable--but it's the setting and all of the delicious social overtones that make this movie resonant.

With all of that said, I thought The Fantastic Flying Books was pretty ham-fisted in its delivery and sentimental as hell. The black-and-white contrast to the colour is a tired trope. And as much as books are an integral part of my life and who I am, this short totally misses the point--it's not the books I was spending all of those hours with, it was Holden Caulfield and Frodo and, hell, I'll admit to this here, Jake and Marco and Cassie and Rachel and Tobias.
posted by onwords at 7:34 AM on April 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

What an astonishing mixture of the complete awesome and the complete fail.

The awesome:

1) The Buster Keaton characterization for the first third or so is marvelous. Particularly, but not only, in the elaborate stunts and the signature mingling of extreme clumsiness with extreme adroitness. Very very hard to pull off well, and they did it very well indeed.
2) The Humpty Dumpty book. Enough said.

And then it went nowhere. His character got neutralized into a placidly benign everyman cartoon character and what remained of the story was just a vacuous conceit about books as abstract manifestations of good rather than vehicles for meaning. (onwords said it better). So basically, a big chunk of this is one of the best animations I've ever seen, and the rest of it is misspent skill and effort.
posted by George_Spiggott at 12:28 PM on April 4, 2012

-it's not the books I was spending all of those hours with, it was Holden Caulfield and Frodo

OK, if we are admitting things here, I'll admit that while it is hard not to like Holden -- so honest -- I never have warmed up to Frodo. And I've read LOTR about a zillion times. I much prefer the movie version of him. But I loved Sam and many other members of the company. (While movie version of Sam, Pippin, Merry, Gimli and for that matter Treebeard makes me roll my eyes.)
posted by bearwife at 11:35 AM on April 5, 2012

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