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Black Lamb


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The black stallion

September 1st, 2003


blackstallion.jpgOne of the perks of becoming a parent is that you discover a whole new world of entertainment options. While trying to entertain a rambunctious toddler and, later, an easily bored kid, I’ve gone to puppet shows on the Champs-Elysées, roving circuses in the French countryside, and dozens and dozens of movies for kids, ranging from predictable Disney drivel to some of the best films I’ve ever seen.

I asked my twelve-year-old daughter Ghislaine which of the many movies we’ve seen that she liked best, and it turns out that her favorites are mine, too. The best films for kids are the ones not made just for kids. Looking over our list, I also see that our favorite films are ones that do much more than tell an interesting story.

One is a 1996 Chinese film by Wu Tian-Ming called Bian Lian (The King of Masks), which we both loved even though we saw it in Chinese with French subtitles. It stands out not only because it’s one of the few films featuring kids in which a girl, rather than a boy, is the hero, but also because of the astounding images of a Chinese street performer who wears a series of masks that he changes miraculously quickly, thanks to special effects that are kept subtle enough to be almost believable.

Another favorite is an Iranian film, Children of Heaven, made by Majid Majidi in 1997. It’s the story of a sister and brother in Teheran who are so poor they have only one pair of shoes between them; the boy wears them half the day and the girl the other half. Majidi — although hampered by censorship and a limited budget — manages to use images of children running through shabby streets in cheap shoes to deliver a powerful portrait of a world in which the poor have incredibly little but can achieve a great deal with that little.

And then there’s Le Roi et l’Oiseau (The King and the Bird), an animated film made in 1979 by Paul Grimault from a script by Jacques Prévert. This is a morality tale of a corrupt king, a clever bird, a pair of lovers, and a range of subjugated subjects who eventually find their way to freedom. Le Roi et l’Oiseau uses inventive sounds and powerful images — of a blind musician charming lions, a clunking machine that churns out statues of the king, a giant robot that’s turned against its masters — that show freedom triumphing over bully-ism and prove that animation doesn’t have to be slick and superficial.

But if I had to choose one so-called kids’ film as my favorite, it would be The Black Stallion (1979), the first feature film by Carroll Ballard, a director who’s made few films but who’s a master of visual expression. This film has a great story going for it: a boy cast away on a desert island with a black stallion manages to survive with the help of the horse, and eventually the pair win a big race together. Having Mickey Rooney in the cast doesn’t hurt, either.

But what makes this film exceptional is Ballard’s reliance on images, sounds and movement rather than language to convey his messages. In a long sequence in which the boy and horse are alone, there are no words at all. Ballard shows the trust being built between boy and horse when the horse gallops along a beach with the boy on his back and the boy holds both his arms out as though he were flying, or when the horse kills a snake about to bite the boy, or when boy and horse fall asleep together next to a campfire.

In one of the most memorable scenes in the film, we see the boy follow the horse into shallow water and get on its back, and then we see, through the lens of an underwater camera, the horse’s legs moving through water to dance music, the hooves marking out the beat as they strike the sand in a watery equine ballet. Nothing extreme, no special effects, nothing but a horse’s legs in water. Ballard focuses on a combination of moving images and sounds — in short, on what sets film apart from other media — and lets these things speak to us without packaging them in words. Too bad more filmmakers don’t follow his lead, no matter what age group they’re shooting for. •

Posted by: The Editors
Category: All Movie Issue, Emerson | Link to this Entry


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