Thursday, March 1, 2012

The feeling of feeling

A day before the Oscars I was surfing the web. Recently I've become a Pinterest fiend (okay, I don't use it that much, but I love it nonetheless), and I decided to go on the site and browse instead of doing anything actually productive.

Then I happened upon a short film called The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore. The rambling title intrigued me because it sounded pretty eclectic and weird. I like indie films and short films perhaps more than I like mainstream media, so I was excited to take a stab and watch whatever this was.

But it was 15 minutes long and I got distracted by a friend a second later, so I decided to hold on to the link and watch it later. I sent myself an email, "WATCH THIS SHORT FILM" said the title, and I went on my merry way.

The next night I had forgotten all about my all caps email. I sat down in my dorm's screening room to watch the Oscars. It came time for the short animated film category and I was 100 percent sure that I knew what was going to win.

"La Luna!" I said. I repeated it in my head while they read the rest of the contenders. Pixar wasn't even nominated for Animated Feature Film so they'd have to get this. It was their right. They are Pixar, after all. They deserve all the awards. Even ones they're not qualified for.

When the name was pulled out of the envelope, it was some other film. The Fantastic Flying something, who knows? Turns out I did, but I didn't realize I did.

"How could they choose that? La Luna looked so good!" I was up in arms with no good reason. The truth is I hadn't seen any of the Oscar nominated animated shorts. I was just hoping La Luna would win because I have an undying devotion to Pixar Animation. But they lost this year - and while I have yet to see La Luna, I'm going to make a case for why, after finally sitting down to watch The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore, I believe the win was truly deserved - even if it meant beating out one of the greatest animation powerhouses of all time.

After the Oscars I was looking through my inbox. I noticed that email I had written to myself and I clicked on it. I had 15 minutes to spare, so why not?

I've never been more amazed by an animated film in my life. Not only was The Fantastic Flying Books artistically stunning and interesting story-wise, it was also emotionally intense, heartbreaking and beautiful simultaneously.

As I was watching this very short piece, I found myself getting steadily more involved with the characters. They didn't have much exposition - especially since there was no dialogue save for a few words on a book (one of the characters is an animated Humpty Dumpty who speaks through text on his book pages) - yet somehow they were filled with heart, with love and loss. I felt like I'd heard them speak lines upon lines when they'd really said nothing.

The story is ultimately about a man, Mr. Morris Lessmore, who gets caught in a tornado-like storm that wipes away everything, including the text off his most prized book. When he sees a woman flying off into the air, holding strings tethered to flying books, he notices her gesture to a house in a colorful place (his world is the shade of newspaper print) where books are alive and Morris finally feels inspired to use his now blank book to write his own story.

I don't want to give away the ending because it is truly one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen, but I will advise anyone who has not yet seen this short to take 15 minutes out of work, studying, lounging around at home or whatever else to do so (you can screen it on YouTube). Even if it doesn't stir up emotions in you like it did in me, it will certainly inspire you to pursue your own goals in life - whether that be to write a book or whatever your own version is.

Mr. Morris Lessmore in The Fantastic Flying Books.
After watching The Fantastic Flying Books, I felt inexorably uplifted. The story had struck me instantaneously, making me feel thrown into the deep recesses of tragedy, but a few moments later it was like I had been brought to heaven. It's rare that I feel so amazing after watching a movie, but after this short I suddenly had this overwhelming knowledge that life is truly worth it.

The art, the story, the characters, the emotions - everything about the short gave me this feeling that despite whatever happens, haven seen this short I will have experienced one of life's greatest offerings.

So it's no wonder that the Academy deemed it the best animated short of the year.

I've seen plenty of great animated shorts. Some on YouTube, some before and after movies, many of them Pixar. I'm a self-proclaimed connoisseur of animation, so this is a genre I've always enjoyed, always felt passionate about.

The Fantastic Flying Books was something more. It reminded me of the "Married Life" scene in Up - yes, the one you're thinking of - where Carl and Ellie live out their married lives from young adulthood to old age, with one of the most amazing orchestral tracks I've ever heard. By the end of that stretch of dialogue-less animation, not a dry eye can be found in the room.

Carl and Ellie in Up.
But even after that scene, I didn't find myself quite as moved as I did watching Morris Lessmore's story. Up showed us a beautiful story about a couple and their parting, leaving the husband feeling dejected and lost without his companion. But The Fantastic Flying Books was about creation, love, loss, and acceptance. Instead of moving you to the point of feeling sad and ruined yourself, as I did when Carl lost Ellie, I was left feeling this strange zen. That life, love and death all came together completely unified, making sense of the world in one fantasy-filled animated film.

I rarely produce blissful tears. I've cried for any number of movies from Schindler's List to Harry Potter. Usually it's the thought of losing something - whether literally in the form of lost souls during the Holocaust or figuratively in the form of my childhood with the end of the HP series - that really gets to me. But the thought of crying because I felt inspired is something unusual in film.

The first time I ever cried during a movie was at the end of Monsters, Inc. I had been fine and tear-free as Boo was separated from Sully. Through all their trials and tribulations, I didn't flinch once. But at the very end when Sully walks into Boo's room and all you hear is her voice saying "Kitty!" I broke down.

The Fantastic Flying Books was like that, magnified ten fold. It was more than the sheer bliss of seeing two characters reunited, it was seeing one character find his place in the world and feeling like I had found my place with him.

And if there is any value to an Oscar at all, it is in recognizing when a film - animated, short or otherwise - has that kind of narrative, visual and auditory power. A film worthy of notice is one that becomes tactile - it touches you and teaches you about life in a way that most films really can't. And even though I love and treasure Pixar, this year The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore truly made me feel.

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