The Red Balloon (1956)
On my “to see” pile for a long time, this French 34 minute live action short from 1956, directed by Albert Lamorisse (no, me either) is quite simply breathtakingly magical. Knowing it was French, and thus meant subtitles, had prevented me from putting it on before now. To all parents of children just learning to read: this film has about four lines of dialogue. They are well spaced out, and were no bother to either of my children. The rest is purely visual.
And what visuals there are. A young boy finds a balloon on his way to school, unties it, and takes it with him. When he gets home at the end of the day, his mother throws it out of the window, but the balloon returns, and thus begins a wonderfully playful relationship with the boy. Blessed with a mind of its own, the balloon is anthropomorphized in a way that is redolent of other classic anthropomorphisms. Herbie in The Love Bug, or the magic carpet in Aladdin. Disney in particular does this well, but here there is a stripped back, raw beauty to the interplay between the balloon and the boy. The palette is nearly drained of colour, and so consequently the balloon is a bright ball of red that stands out as a circle of joy against the dour backing.
The Red Balloon is about friendship, fantasy, and also of danger. It is a life lesson to children on the fleeting nature of existence, wrapped up in a 34 minute film about a balloon. That we come to care for this inanimate object in so short a time is indicative of the quality of film-making. I could watch this time and again and my children were entranced by the action, however minimal it may be. (Lots of walking, not a lot else.) A stand-out scene of great humour comes when the boy, holding the red balloon, meets a girl holding a blue balloon. The romantic to-and-fro between the two balloons is winningly endearing.
So this week I decided to introduce my children to foreign language shorts with small amounts of subtitles. My daughter (nearly 7) is a fast reader, and my son (9) is a competent reader, but needs a kick up the bum sometimes, as most boys do. He loves film, ergo, reading subtitles might help. Anyway, it was a good excuse to try them with this 10 minute little marvel.
The story of a hedgehog, uh, in the fog (it’s nearly as obvious a title as this blog’s) is charmingly directed and animated by Yuriy Norshteyn. The hedgehog is on his way to meet bear, where they will eat raspberry jam and look at the stars. The innocence is palpable, so when the dog descends and hedgehog becomes lost, the terror is heightened. He sees dogs, owls, and horses, and they all seem far more unnerving than might otherwise be the case. Leaves falling are a horror.
The hedgehog at one point becomes resigned to his fate. He allows the river to take him where it will, unconcerned with his wellbeing. When he finally gets to bear, bear is frantic, talking extremely fast (the subtitles are similarly fast, proving a little problematic for the slower reader) but even not catching all his words, the intention and impact of his manner is not lessened.
Hedgehog in the Fog is only 11 minutes long, but crams a world of imagery into its slight running time. The layer collage animation style could be crude, but is charming. And the way it presents the world is transfixing. Hope, loss, humour, wonder, friendship, terror, resignation, relief. All these are present here and, for a short film to get across so much is a wonder to behold. For the young reader, this is an essential childhood film. Too early, and the child will be bored because they have to have the subtitles narrated.