Parents! Do you dread the moment when your kids demand that you watch Madagascar, for the thirtieth time? Do you never want to hear another word from them about that squirrel and his flipping acorn? But are you worried that they will shun anything not already marketed to them through tie-in Happy Meals? MostlyFilm feels your pain, and has tasked its more fertile contributors with trying out some children’s and family classics on their broods, taking inspiration from the BFI’s list of the 50 films you should see before you’re 14, and Mark “The Story of Film” Cousins’s similar list. This is bound to go well, right?
LE BALLON ROUGE, Albert Lamorisse, 1956
“Is this one of your oldie films?” my son asks suspiciously when I settle down on the sofa with my two kids (aged seven and ten) on a lazy Sunday afternoon to watch The Red Balloon. Yes, kid, I have to admit that it is. My poor children. The perils of having a film historian for a parent: it’s never just playing a DVD, there’s the weight of expectation to contend with too. Plus you’re always being tricked into watching stuff you’d never chose of your own free will. Hence The Red Balloon.
The first few minutes do not go well at all. Music: not nice (my daughter even clasps her hands over her ears, for emphasis). Title credits: boring. I point out the word Technicolor on the screen – at least it isn’t in black and white. My son lays down an ultimatum: if things don’t improve within fifteen minutes, he’s going to give up.
The film is only 34 minutes long. I’m pretty optimistic that if we make it to the half-way point, it’s in the bag.
And so it proves, fortunately. The film draws them in surprisingly quickly. The only thing I’m always unprepared for is the barrage of questions which accompanies anything we watch together. “Is it about that boy or what?” “Is that Paris?” “How old is that boy?” “Is is about the balloon and the boy?” “Did the balloon do that on purpose?!” I was never like this when I watched movies, was I?
I try to keep my answers short, not to ignore them, but not to give too much away either. Occasionally I try, “keep watching, the film will answer your questions”, but they’re not really having any of it. So I fall back on, “I can’t remember”.
But the funny thing is, I do remember. I saw The Red Balloon for the one and (until now, I’m fairly sure) only time in school. By coincidence, my mum recently dug out one of my old textbooks, and there, dated 24.9.74, is a little essay I wrote continuing the boy’s story. I wanted to call him Michael, but spelling was never one of my strong points, and he ended up as Michel. I remember the teacher praising me for choosing a real French name, and not having the courage to tell her it was all a mistake. My Michel ended up travelling round the world before the balloons brought him back to his grandmother’s flat in Paris.
I remember how lonely the little boy in the movie seemed, rather like me. I remember wishing I had a balloon for a friend too. I remember watching the balloon’s slow death, the film breaking my heart. I remember how quiet it was in the classroom afterwards.
Now I can notice things that children don’t. I can see Lamorisse’s mastery of mise-en-scène (try spelling that one, 7-year-old me). His wonderful use of deep space and long takes. The subtle effects. (“Is the balloon on a string or is it a stick?”).
My children don’t adore the film. “50/50” is the verdict. They have real trouble getting their heads around why the bullies do what they do, but this is actually a good thing, because it means they haven’t encountered any bullies yet. Their mother had no such luck.
But they do laugh and they do – well, not cry, but sniff, and most important of all, they stay to the end. And I will wait and see if the film has stayed with them, too.
THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD, Michael Curtiz and William Keighley, 1938
by Sarah Slade
I was raised by 60s radicals who decreed early on that Disney was Bad (apart from Fantasia, which was a wild trip, except for that awful Beethoven bit with the fauns), so instead my mother would drag me off to the NFT to watch Mary Pickford play Little Lord Fauntleroy, and Errol Flynn defend Saxon freedoms as Robin Hood. Since then I have heartily despised blonde ringlets of any description, and adored movies featuring men in tights and big swords. Time then, to subject my eight-year-old daughter, Charlie – who loves Winging It, (a dreadful thing about apprentice angels in an American high school), Scooby Doo and Top Cat – to my favourite Technicolor classic.
Robin Hood movies are basically collections of folk tales about a medieval bandit king who may or may not have operated around Nottingham in the eleventh century. Now, I’m not a medieval historian, but even I know that Good King Richard wasn’t in the least bit good, and liked killing Muslims more than he liked ruling a damp windy island full of miserable Saxon types. Still, the stories in this telling are knitted together beautifully, and told with such verve and bounce, that you have to pack your inner pedant off with a book and a biscuit, and just enjoy the ride. There’s Errol Flynn, for starters. Errol bestrides a Sherwood tree like a man born to wear hosiery. His back is straight, his eyes are twinkly, his smile is flawless, and he really doesn’t suit that curly bob. From the opening fights, where he takes on an entire banqueting hall of hungry Normans armed only with a dead deer, you know you’re in good company. Meanwhile Basil Rathbone flounces and struts as Guy of Gisbourne, leaving it until the climactic sword battle to make Charlie whoop with delight at his fencing skills. Claude Rains is drily comic and about as camp as you could be in the 1930s as the dastardly Prince John.
Olivia de Havilland as Maid Marian is another reason to love this film. Exquisitely beautiful, intelligent and full of fire, this Maid Marian doesn’t wobble at the first sighting of Errol’s thighs. It is Marian who comes up with a daring plan to rescue Robin from under the noses of his captors. Even when Robin visits her room at night, she’s angry with him for risking his life on a whim. Charlie was a bit cross when she finally succumbed and kissed Errol (“EEEEUUUUWWW! Kissy kissy!”). I was too busy admiring the frocks to notice. And what frocks! Marian has a different costume for every scene, in various shades of silver, regal purples and virginal blues. Our favourite was the chain-mail themed number that she wears to meet the Merrie Men and plot Robin’s release. Charlie particularly liked the castle scenes because they looked just like her favourite Horrible Histories jigsaw puzzle, and she was intrigued by medieval table manners.
The return of Richard is a signal for one’s inner pedant to demand another biscuit to keep quiet, but it’s also a signal for the fun to stop. Life is about to return to normal. The baddies are vanquished, and it’s time for Robin to stop playing in the forest with his common chums, and resume his place amongst the rulers. Still, it was great fun while it lasted. Charlie gave Robin Hood a big thumbs up for the fights, the “interesting faces”, and the slapstick moments. Though apparently it’s still not as good as Merlin.
SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN, Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly, 1952
Looking over the BFI’s list, I knew there was only one choice for my three-year-old: Singin’ in the Rain. It was a nice fit with what I thought of as a good alternative to the endless rounds of Disney, Pixar, Disney/Pixar and Shrek. It’s bright, fast-moving, funny, varied – yeah, perfect. A bit long, but that shouldn’t be too problematic. After all, she happily watches Mary Poppins start to finish over and over, and that is one of the longest films in the universe at 3,682 minutes (I’ve timed it).
Oh, and she’d seen it before, of course. But only when she was very little, when it would have been a swirl of colour and song, people looking happy and an endlessly shifting background for her baby brain to lull itself to. But I figured, hey, she’s three now. Maybe she can handle story. Maybe the jokes – the broad jokes, the slapstick, the pies in faces – would get through to her. Surely she’ll appreciate the songs, of course the dancing will be captivating. It’s spectacle, pure and simple.
And so, to a certain extent, it proved. Sure, we had to coax her along a little (she is still only three) – ‘Oh dear, she didn’t mean to hit the lady with the pie, she mean to hit the man!’ – but she definitely followed more of the narrative. I doubt she could explain the story to you for all the Haribo in Germany, but that’s the bad lady, that’s the funny man… yup, she was on it. “Make ‘em Laugh” got a couple of chuckles out of her.
Thanks to a bit of YouTube-based ground-preparation, she was primed to meet “Good Morning” with delight, and so she did. The title song was a hit, though only just. Still, it held her, kept her attention for a long time, even when she didn’t really get the jokes. The hilarious test screening of The Duelling Cavalier was totally lost on her, but she saw the audience’s amusement as entertainment enough. For the first, oh, hour or so she was definitely enjoying the film.
It couldn’t last, it’s too much. Although the only song I’ve heard her sing after our viewing has been “Moses Supposes” (the only original song in the movie, and easily the least interesting), around the time of the elocution lessons she became restless, fidgety and frankly downright insolent (see picture). By the time it came to the traditional (in our house) Skipping-of-the-Broadway-Melody-Ballet, she was back to running amok in the living room. She settled a little for the – to her, baffling – finale, but as The End came up on screen, she was already asking ‘Can we watch Mary Poppins now, please?’. Again.