Janus Films and the Criterion Collection have released two classic short films for children from French filmmaker Albert Lamorisse: White Mane (1952), and The Red Balloon (1956). Each is mostly silent, with only the odd line or two of dialogue. In essence, both are extended chase sequences that deserve to be taught in film school.
I vaguely recall seeing The Red Balloon in elementary school, as an ancient film print running through our rattling projector. As the little boy Pascal (Pascal Lamorisse) makes his way to school through a depressingly grey Paris, he frees a stray balloon (the reddest red you’ll ever see on film) tangled on a lamppost. The balloon becomes his faithful and playful pet, but causes him nothing but grief. He is kicked off the bus, made late for school, gets in trouble with maman, and provokes a gang of ruffians in short pants. Still, throughout, the boy remains the faithful defender of his adopted friend, and is ultimately rewarded after suffering tragedy.
White Mane is the story of a proud, wild horse sought after by cruel ranchers. Only Folco (Alain Emery), a poor young fisherman, treats the horse with the due respect in order to be able to approach and eventually ride him. The two become equals, as opposed to master and pet. Shockingly, their tale ends in an apparent suicide, as Folco and the horse both chose the freedom of death over living under oppression (poverty for Folco, captivity for the horse).
Together, the two films present the following morals: adults are cruel and unfair, intent on stamping out pleasure and freedom, and animals and inanimate objects make better friends than humans. Both feature heartbreaking tragedies that would almost certainly never figure into contemporary children’s films.