The best children’s movies work equally well for grown-ups. Almost nothing is more inspiriting than seeing a great movie as a wide-eyed youngster and then, years later, rewatching it as an adult and experiencing the same joy all over again. The experience is validating, as if, despite all we may have lived through, there remains within us that same astonished child. For this latest column of comfort movies, I thought I would single out three of my favorites, all readily accessible, that both fulfill the children’s movie genre and triumphantly transcend it.
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“The Red Balloon”
Albert Lamorisse’s 1956 “The Red Balloon” is so firmly entrenched in the timeless classic category that it may come as a shock to revisit it and realize it’s every bit as marvelous as you remembered. To see the film in the company of a child who has never seen it before is a special blessing. Few children’s movies have elicited as much instant love. In fact, I suspect “The Red Balloon” is one of the rare movies that could justifiably lay claim to creating movie lovers for life. (“E.T.” is certainly another one, and I’ll get to a few of the others in a moment.)
At a brisk 34 minutes, with almost no dialogue, “The Red Balloon” manages to encompass a vast swath of childhood experience without seeming in any way overladen or overblown. It has the logic, and the lyricism, of a fanciful child’s dream, and yet the film is rooted in the very real world of post-war France – specifically the gray, drab neighborhood of Ménilmontant on the outskirts of Paris.
The plot, at least in the telling, is simple: A little boy of perhaps 6 (played by the director’s son Pascal) is mysteriously befriended by a big lollipop-red helium balloon that floats above him everywhere. Its shiny redness rebukes the neighborhood’s grayness. It follows him to school (the headmaster is not amused), to his home (his mother is even less amused), and to church (where boy, balloon, and mom are shown the door). In one of the film’s most magical scenes, the boy passes a little girl on the sidewalk with a big blue balloon and, for a brief, romantic moment, both balloons enact a little midair duet. (An added grace note: The little girl is played by Lamorisse’s daughter, Sabine.)
Lamorisse doesn’t deny the frights of childhood. When a gang of schoolyard bullies brings down the balloon, the scene for me was as sorrowful as that moment in “Cast Away” when Tom Hanks is irreparably separated from “Wilson,” the soccer ball that is also his sole desert island companion. But all is blissfully righted in the final scene, as thousands of balloons are suddenly released into the air, wafting the little boy high into the sky. It’s a poetically perfect ending to a perfect movie. (Unrated)
“The Black Stallion”
Equal in entrancement to Lamorisse’s masterpiece is Carroll Ballard’s 1979 “The Black Stallion,” a ravishing rendition of the Walter Farley novel. Kelly Reno plays Alec, who is shipwrecked on a deserted island with the magnificent Arabian stallion he dubs “The Black.” The oceanside scene where they warily warm to each other, shot by cinematographer Caleb Deschanel in glimmering shafts of reflected light, is peerless. Rescued, brought back home, boy and horse are inseparable. A retired jockey, played by Mickey Rooney in his finest performance, sets them up for the heart-pounding big race that closes out the film. From first image to last, Ballard sustains the story with surpassing grace. No other film has captured quite so well the transcendent bond that can exist between people and the animals they love. (Rated G)
“A Little Princess”
I would be remiss if I finished out this column without mentioning “A Little Princess,” Alfonso Cuarón’s 1995 adaptation of the Frances Hodgson Burnett novel that had earlier been filmed with Shirley Temple. On its simplest level, it’s about little darlings in a Victorian gothic girls’ boarding school in 1914, but it soon turns into a resplendent fantasia. I championed the film when it came out, writing that “the filmmakers want us to perceive the fundament of magic in the everyday, and how that magic can sustain one’s spirit.” For children of all ages, there is no better time for this film than now. (Rated G)
These films are available for rent from Amazon’s Prime Video and iTunes. “The Black Stallion” and “A Little Princess” can also be rented from Google Play. “The Red Balloon” may also be borrowed through some public library systems with Kanopy.