It is quite possible that 2011-2122 will be remembered as banner years for author, illustrator and animator William Joyce. First, Joyce made a triumphant return to illustrated books with The Man in the Moon and followed that with his first young adult prose novel, Nicholas St. North and the Battle of the Nightmare King. In addition, he released his first animated short, The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore, created by his own company, Moonbot.
What does 2012 promise? Morris Lessmore is nominated for an Oscar for Best Animated Short Film, and later this year DreamWorks animation will release Rise of the Guardians, a feature-length animated adaptation of his Guardians of Childhood mythos. On top of that, the second book in the Guardians series, this time featuring a monocle-wearing rabbit, will be out in time for Easter.
It is perhaps fitting that just as Joyce returned to books the first animated short from his studio should focus on the redemptive powers of storytelling. Though Joyce has been involved in several large-studio productions (including Robots and an adaptation of his own book, Meet the Robinsons), there has yet to be a screen adaptation that completely captured his unique vision. Morris Lessmore is the first animated work that completely looks like a William Joyce creation, complete with bright pastel colors and shiny Americana. Working under his own Moonbot banner, Joyce, and co-director Brandon Oldenburg, were able to create a haunting vignette without an interfering studio inserting by-rote funk music and fart jokes. (Morris Lessmore is also an iPad app, turning the short into an interactive ebook of sorts.)
Where to begin with Morris Lessmore? Our main character is a beautifully animated homage to silent movie clown Buster Keaton. Morris is a masterpiece of recreation; Joyce and Oldenburg completely nail Keaton’s persona. Some of the physical jokes hark back directly to Keaton’s films, but, more importantly, they have captured Keaton’s magical facial expressions and dance-like movements as well. Captured, too, is Keaton’s underlying melancholy: though Chaplin often strove for pathos, he himself was seldom a tragic figure. Not so Keaton, whose face was chiseled in stone but his eyes were those of a wounded angel. There is an incredible amount of tenderness in the animated Morris, and it is his face that echoes once the short is over.
The plot is surreal and allegorical: Morris, reading, is pulled by a hurricane into a magical realm. There, he becomes guardian over an elaborate mansion of books, caring for them, healing them when ruined, and sharing them with people as if he were a celestial librarian. Many years later, his life over, he spirits away towards heaven, young once again, buffeted by a bevy of airborne books.
With so simple an outline, Joyce and Oldenburg manage to cram into 13 minutes some of the most wistful, affecting and moving animation I’ve seen in years. Morris is befriended by a book version of Humpty Dumpty, and in a witty animation in-joke, Humpty moves when the pages of his book turn, much like early efforts at animation. The score is simplicity itself – mostly Pop Goes the Weasel hauntingly played on a piano heavy with vibrato.
In addition, we are treated to notations in Morris’ own notebook, penned in a simple hand. One page reads: My further investigations have turned many of my long held opinions into mush. The many and varied points of view I have encountered do not confuse, but enrich. I laugh. I cry. I seldom understand things, but it…
On another page, Morris writes, I go round and round the mulberry bush. Why does the weasel go “pop?” Does it matter? If life is enjoyed, does it have to make sense?
Like all allegories, what most people will find in The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore is what they bring to it. However, I cannot escape the sense of both irrepressible joy and gentle sadness found in the film. One of the recurrent themes threading through Joyce’s current work is the sense of stewardship, and it’s no mistake that Morris is a Guardian as much as the other fairy tale and folklore figures he is using in his Guardians of Childhood series. Nor can it be completely accidental that Morris’ key confident is Humpty Dumpty, who was once broken and is now rebuilt. For this correspondent, it’s impossible to watch Morris Lessmore without a sense of melancholy and loss. It is a unique note to find in an animated short, and the film is all the more interesting, and, yes, profound, because of it.
Whether The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore wins the Academy Award or not is mostly irrelevant. The achievement of Joyce and Oldenburg will survive either a loss or a win. Interested readers can see the film here: http://vimeo.com/35404908. It’s 13 minutes you may never forget.