iPad iBook Review: The Numberlys by Moonbot Studios
Reviewed by Guy Dayen
On the heels of "The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore", Moonbot Studio has created another charming story in their newest app: "The Numberlys". In this new story, we follow a small group of friends, called One, Two, Three, Four and Five, who live in a world of numbers. Letters don't exist, words can't be written, the people have no name and digits are everywhere. It is a grey, sterile, orderly world. In a scene reminiscent of the classic film "Metropolis", we see hundreds of the Numberlys leaving their homes and making their way together to their work places. The overhead shot of the crowd, marching as one body down a long, narrow street really brings home the mechanized nature of the great anonymous city.
Our small band of friends toil in an enormous factory that churns out giant black numbers all day long. The assembly line goes ever on, never stopping, never varying, never ending. The only respite is the brief time the little group has to eat their lunch together. Otherwise, every Numberly is surrounded by large contraptions, continually whirling, buzzing and spinning around. This is a lonely, dull, monotone world, all done in shades of black and white.
One day, the little group hits upon the idea of creating something new, something that will bring change and renewal to their grey world. The bulk of the story focuses on their creation: the fashioning of each letter of the alphabet. (It is here that most of the interaction comes in, as the reader goes through a series of short activities to help the Numberlys with their creation of the letters.) Finally, people and objects will have names, and this world can come alive with the magic of language. The numbing grayness is replaced by rich, vibrant colors. The Numberlys discover their own individuality and their own joy. It is an uplifting and happy tale; a celebration of the uniqueness found in all of us and of the wonder found all around us.
The Numberlys is a marvelous little story, centered on engaging, endearing and unique characters. This is quite a feat, since everyone in this drab world pretty much looks like everyone else, and the characters are mainly silent, communicating mostly through their eyes and facial expressions. They remind me very much of the great silent movie actors, such as Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, in their ability to convey emotions with a simple look or a telling pose.
The graphic design is quite reminiscent of art deco and of the work of the Fleischer Studios, especially as seen in the Superman series of cartoons. Everything in this world has great depth and dimension, despite the monochromatic palette. The intricacies in the play of light and shadows make this app a joy to behold. There are so many details to be discovered in the vast city and in the factory setting that the story can be revisited over and again without it becoming visually boring.
I'm a great fan of Morris Lessmore and I was looking forward to Moonbot's next effort. The depth of feeling and the obvious care that went into the story of the flying books made that book a must-have for the iPad, and I had high hopes for their follow-up. Thankfully, I was not disappointed. The Numberlys is an affecting story, full of charm and whimsy, despite the drab mechanical city the characters live in. I truly enjoyed the book and I think it will hold great appeal to a wide range of ages.
The app affords the option of having a narrator read the story so that younger children can also enjoy this sweet little adventure. Adults should be sure to listen to the narrative at least once, as it is really well done, and it would be a shame to miss it. It adds a wonderful dimension to the story.
I was also very impressed by the creativity shown in the music and the sound design of The Numberlys. Since the characters don't talk, these elements becomes essential in advancing and supporting the story. Again, Moonbot does not disappoint.
Some people have left comments on the iTunes store to the effect that they were not happy with The Numberlys because they found the "game" too easy and were able to beat it in a few minutes. It seems to me that they misunderstood the nature of this app. While there is indeed a strong element of interactivity in the story, as readers provide assistance in the creation of the alphabet, the main focus is on the narrative and not on the mini-games themselves. Their purpose is to involve young readers more deeply in the story, and to teach the youngest readers the letters of the alphabet in a fun and creative way. (For my part, the only quibble I had with the book was that some of the transitions from scene to scene were somewhat abrupt.)
Thinking of The Numberlys as a hybrid interactive book/ short film will give you a much more accurate idea of what The Numberlys truly is. Moonbot Studios did another terrific job with this story, and after checking out their website and seeing illustrations of their upcoming projects, I can't wait to see what will come next.