The Red Balloon & White Mane

B A pair of family-friendly short subjects

  • Written and directed by Albert Lamorisse

It’s not easy marketing and distributing shorts in an industry geared to features. That’s probably why Janus Films put two short children’s films by Albert Lamorisse together into one package. Combined, “The Red Balloon” and “White Mane” run 73 minutes–just about the minimum for a feature.

“The Red Balloon” is a masterpiece. “White Mane,” at least with the new English translation, is nothing of the sort.

Like many an American baby boomer, “The Red Balloon” was my introduction to a cinema beyond Hollywood. I think I first saw it in a museum screening at a very young age, and it redballoon stunned me with its wit, charm, simple story, and semi-sad ending–I hadn’t realized such a thing was possible. I saw it again two or three times after that. But until Landmark Theaters sent me a review screener last week, I had not seen it since I was old enough to read subtitles.

I don’t recall the film having subtitles when I was a kid, although it does now. They’re not necessary. Lamorisse uses visuals, music, and sound effects to tell his story of a young boy and his loyal pet balloon. The boy walks to school, goes to church, runs from bullies–all the while a balloon follows him attentively (if a bit mischievously). Of course, his unusual companion is part of the problem. There’s no need to understand what little dialog Lamorisse gives you.

There’s a bit more dialog in “White Mane,” and no subtitles. Instead, Janus has added a new English-language narration, “faithful to the original French voiceover and dialogue” according to the press release. When a character says something in French, the narrator comes in a second later like a United Nations translator–except that he adds something like “said the wrangler” in case kids don’t understand that the person speaking French is, in fact, the person who is speaking. I’m happy to report that large passages of the movie are narrator-free, but the all-knowing voice seldom adds anything worthwhile when it comes on.

Not that “White Mane” would be “Red Balloon” if the narrator would just shut up. The story of a wild horse and the people who want to tame him (boy good; men bad) is cloying and sentimental–something “The Red Balloon” avoids through magic and wit. The horse movie has some strikingly beautiful images, but they’re not enough to make up for a story that feels thin and stretched even at 40 minutes.

According to the press release, “Both films are narrated in English.” On my screener DVD, only “White Mane suffered such abuse. I hope that the screener was right and the press release wrong.whitemane