Review: The Red Balloon, White Mane, Paddle to the Sea DVDs

Following their multi-city theatrical tour in Fall 2007, Janus Films and Criterion have teamed up to bring the Albert Lamorisse-directed double-header The Red Balloon and White Mane to DVD, along with William Mason’s classic short film adaptation of Paddle to the Sea. Although both companies have released kid-friendly material in the past, this trio of short films should mark the strongest foray yet into the “indie for kids” genre that we at GKIDS and NYICFF have been advocating for.

The Red Balloon is without a doubt the biggest title of the three new releases, as the image of the film’s titular balloon, glowing an impossibly dazzling shade of Technicolor red, has seared itself into so many childhood memories like my own. The film’s story, like White Mane and Paddle to the Sea, is deceptively simple; a young boy discovers a balloon, which seems to express free will through its movements, and together they go on an adventure through Paris. The movie moves at a languid pace, self-assured of its jokes in the first half and the dramatic chase scene that anchors the second, but it never drags (nor does it really have time to, with a running time of just over half an hour). In something of a scandal, Red Balloon also won the 1956 Oscar for Original Screenplay, despite the film only having a few lines of dialogue. What the Oscar instead symbolizes to me is the film’s great reliance on cinematic technique to tell the story, giving the non-verbal balloon human properties of playfulness and friendship, and setting up jokes as if the balloon were to join Chaplin and Keaton among the masters of silent comedy. The lack of dialogue also means that The Red Balloon’s sense of humor and magical drama can appeal to kids of all ages, even if they can’t yet read the subtitles for the French drama.

As the second-half of the theatrical double-header, I approached White Mane as more of a mystery, having never been exposed to it as a young lad. Another prize-winning short film from Albert Lamorisse completed several years before his Red Balloon, this film feels darker and more mature, dwelling on the gritty realities of nature, but there’s also the same wonderful exploration of friendship that made his later film so famous. This story focuses on White Mane, the rebellious and proud leader of a pack of wild horses, who dodges the herdsmen’s repeated attempts to capture him. After one dangerous escape, he meets the adolescent fisherman Folco, and although the horse is initially reluctant to trust a human they eventually develop a powerful bond. A possible spoiler: the ending can be depressing depending on how much disbelief you are willing to suspend, although I suspect that unlike other stories that actively pander to such escapist notions, the magical realism of White Mane suggests it might not be the most unlikely scenario. There is more French dialogue in this film, but the DVD also includes an optional narration by actor Peter Strauss, which basically involves him reading the subtitles aloud.

Finally, Paddle to the Sea is something of the odd man out in this initial trio of Janus releases for families. It was not presented in the theatrical tour, the other two films feature the same director and themes, and this movie also falls closest to what I would think of as an “educational” film, with plodding narration that can sound didactic. Based on the Caldecott-winning book by Holling C. Holling, Paddle to the Sea is the name of a boat with a Native American passenger whittled by a young Canadian boy. He fills the bottom with lead to keep the boat floating upright and scratches “Put me back in the water” as a message to those who may find him, then he releases the small boat into the local river, thinking it will eventually float downstream and into the Atlantic Ocean. Another simple premise gives the opportunity for absolutely stunning nature cinematography, as director Bill Mason tracks the boat’s journey for over two years, acting, like the boat, as a passive spectator to the wonders of our everyday surroundings, including entombment in ice, vast forest fires, riverside fireworks on the Fourth of July, and most memorably, a dramatic plunge down Niagara Falls. Although Paddle to the Sea lacks the narrative sophistication of the other two films, the documentary footage captured here will consistently catch your attention with questions of, “How did they do that?”

As DVDs, all three films receive very nice digital transfers, which make them automatically superior to the worn-out tapes many families own. The Red Balloon’s colors are perfect, with the balloon looking like the center of an otherwise drab and unsaturated universe. White Mane, shot years earlier in black-and-white, has a harsh quality more in line with a documentary, but it's also sharply detailed. Paddle to the Sea is a tad rougher, with minor dirt and scratches throughout, but this can no doubt be attributed to the film being shot on rugged 16mm cameras. All three films feature a short, interesting essay in the liner notes, and a trailer for the White Mane / Red Balloon theatrical release. That’s it. Criterion has been very clear that they are revisiting these titles later this year in new special editions with an abundance of extras, but the price for those will no doubt be raised considerably. Considering the outstanding video quality of these new releases, which cannot be greatly improved in any future release, I think the cheap price tags on these three will make them the best choice for families who are interested in the films first and foremost. Although I’d still take The Red Balloon if I could choose only one, all three short films are wonderful for all ages, and the price is right.

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