04 August, 2008

It's Alive! IT'S ALIVE!

So here's the thing.

I've never seen The Red Balloon (see the trailer here) before. Obviously I'd heard of the film, it's generally acknowledged as a classic, but I'd managed to somehow never see it. It seems like an inprobable concept to structure a film around - a boy finds a balloon - and yet it works.

What I was surprised to discover was that, in some ill-defined way, the balloon was alive. This isn't immediately obvious - we only learn this after the boy's mother throws the balloon outside (cue audible gasp from the audience, including myself), the balloon starts to float away, then returns to hover outside the window until the boy retrieves it. And it's at that moment that the film becomes extraordinary. Balloons always seem alive, dancing around seemingly of their own accord in the wind, and this film merely takes that idea one step further. The balloon comes at the boy's call, follows the boy, ducks and dodges out of the grasp of other people. The boy and balloon become friends, and the film manages to make this seem, if not believable, at least plausible. There's an innocence and playfulness to the film that is quite charming. At the same time, the film manages to capture the joys of childhood without either being overly (and cloyingly) sentimental, or holding an adult's cynicism. It's quite extraordinary.

(Brief sidenote: There's a film on at the festival, that I never saw, called Flight of the Red Balloon (see the trailer here), that seems to revolve in part around a (fictional) remake of The Red Balloon, and I think that in itself speaks to the influence and impact that The Red Balloon has had. And it's easy to see why the film has had that effect.)

The Red Balloon is a short film - under 40 minutes - so the film was paired with an earlier film from the same director. White Mane tells the story of a wild white horse that roams the plains, escaping from the clutches of all who try to catch and tame it, whether the evil ranchers or a young boy. But, eventually, the horse grows to trust and respect the boy, and a friendship grows between the two.

To be honest, the main problem that White Mane has is that it's not The Red Balloon. Viewed by itself, it's probably reasonably watchable, and it's certainly not a bad film. But when paired with The Red Balloon, comparisons between the two films are always going to be made, and the film does not come out at all well in the comparison. White Mane just seems more pedestrian, something we've all seen before in films like The Black Stallion or National Velvet. And for all its fantastic and unbelievable elements, The Red Balloon is just easier to relate to, tied in its roots to a common childhood experience. We've all had balloons that seemed almost alive, not all of us have ever dreamed of riding a wild horse around the open plains. And this may be part of the reason why White Mane simply didn't engage me - I didn't dislike the film, I just wasn't caught up in its world or its story. In the end, both films seem very similar, but where White Mane is tied down by literalism (they even have to rely on constant narration to tell us what's going on in White Mane's mind), The Red Balloon comes across as imaginative and a more genuine representation of the childhood experience. The endings of the two are surprisingly similar in a lot of ways, but when the narrator in White Mane comments how the two swim to an island "where horses and children can be friends forever", it just feels like a clunky effort to force some kind of deeper meaning into a story that doesn't support it, whereas the ending of The Red Balloon is much more poetic and beautiful.

Fortunately, The Red Balloon is so wonderful that, even at its short running time, the cost of the film ticket is more than justified by that film alone. Any enjoyment you can get from White Mane (and there is enjoyment there) is just an extra, a bonus.

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