Bottom Line: a beautifully animated short film, a narrated retelling of the Christmas classic, 7 preschool learning games, and 6 create a scene play rooms all set to the spellbinding music of Tchaikovsky's ballet.
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If Little Bit Studio, makers of perennial favorites Bugs and Buttons, Bugs and Bubbles and the recently released Bugs and Numbers made a Christmas app, it might look something like AppyPup's The Nutcracker and the Mystery of the Disappearing Cheese. The graphics, music, detail and sheer breadth of this app are astonishing. The opening sequence is a two minute movie that introduces the story of the Nutcracker and the app's tour guide, a mouse named Theodore. The backstory which explains how the prince of Sugarland became a nutcracker moves very quickly which is a shame because the visuals are exceptional. The animators use shadows to great effect and this intro really sets the mood for the app.
The games and educational exercises are all set in the Stahlbaum family's mansion. The developers have cleverly taken all the characters from the Nutcracker and given them a role in the app. Frau Stahlbaum presides over baking complete with cracking eggs, whisking batter and adding colored piping and Marzipan candies to the cake. Herr Stahlbaum's study is my favorite room. He looks so life-like, and there is a sense of a Mona Lisa effect as I truly felt he was staring right at me. He even blinks and is quite a good sport about trying on different spectacles and mustaches. He'll even tell his young stylist if he doesn't like the look he or she creates. Be sure to pour him a spot of tea which he happily drinks, and add some logs to the fire so the dog at his feet stays toasty warm.
The Stahlbaum kids also join in the fun. Clara's room is the ultimate in playing dress-up as she has gorgeous hats worthy of Duchess Kate, jewels, gowns and some elaborate updos and Texas-sized hair to match all the finery. Don't think this is an app just for girls though. Fritz has an entire regiment of toy soldiers at his command. The generals on horseback issue orders and both sides have confetti shooting cannons. When children tire of their hosts, the Stahlbaums, they can trim a tree in the parlor with the Nutcracker or venture to the basement and confront the Mouse King. The so-called mystery of the cheese is solved there.
As if six highly original, creative playscapes weren't enough, the app also has the usual preschool fare in some not so usual incarnations. Letter tracing is done with a feather quill over a mouse's paw prints. Sorting ornaments into their storage bins is livened up with a fast moving conveyor belt, and pattern completion is done using Clara's pretty hair bows. Mazes are generally about as exciting as matching games and viewed by SAFK with a deepening sense of ennui, but this maze is anything but boring. Little fingers have to trace a path through a hodgepodge of kitchen utensils and foodstuffs so that the mouse can reach his chunk of cheese. The maze changes each time through and my 10 year old went through it numerous times as did I truth be told.
There's so much to do and see in this app that it might take a few days to even venture upon the story. It too is presented in an artful fashion that is anything but ordinary. The tale picks up where the intro left off. Theodore the mouse happily reports that Clara broke the spell put on the Nutcracker by the Mouse King. She and the Prince are whisked away to Sugarland where they presumably get to watch the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy and the other highlights from the ballet. After a long night Clara returns home to her family and the little mouse goes to tell Drosselmeyer the good news that the curse is broken.
Unlike most book apps, this story has no text. It is told through narration and pictures. The pictures are hidden behind frost which must be melted away by rubbing the screen. It even sounds like scraping ice from a windshield when you're swiping away. The sound effects here and throughout the app are extremely well done. Fritz's train sounds just like a real locomotive and the fire in the study crackles each time a new log is added. And speaking of sound, one could do a lot worse than Tchaikovsky.
My only criticisms of the app are its narration and navigation. Theodore is the storyteller, but since he is a mouse, he speaks in a somewhat squeaky mouse voice. Navigation relies on returning to the Table of Contents when a child tires of playing in a particular room. I would prefer that activities automatically switch after a given amount of time has elapsed. Perhaps an option for autoplay would be in order.
AppyPup has poured a ton of imagination into this app. It is sure to brighten any family's holiday festivities and likely will provide more entertainment than all the expensive battery operated toys under your tree.
Jill Goodman was a bunhead for five years but was never able to dance in the Nutcracker and stills feels cheated because she would have made an excellent Clara. smartappsforkids.com was paid a priority-review fee to complete this review in an expedited manner.