The Red Balloon and Other Stories: Five Films by Albert Lamorisse
Everyday life becomes an adventure in the wide-eyed fables and fantasies of Albert Lamorisse. Balancing imaginative whimsy with documentary-like authenticity, his beloved short films Bim, the Little Donkey; White Mane; and the Academy Award–winning The Red Balloon find unforgettable emotional, spiritual, and moral resonance in the realms of children and animals, while his captivating but now rarely seen features Stowaway in the Sky and Circus Angel exult in the glories of two of his greatest loves: nature and flight. With their astonishing cinematography and purity of spirit, these five enchanting works invite viewers of all ages to experience the wonder, mystery, and poignancy of the world anew.
The Criterion Collection combines five films by director Albert Lamorisse in their latest Blu-ray release, The Red Balloon and Other Stories. Spanning two dual-layer discs, the set includes The Red Balloon; White Mane; Bim, the Little Donkey; Stowaway in the Sky; and Circus Angel. All films are presented with 1080p/24hz encodes in the aspect ratio of 1.37:1, except for Stowaway, shown in the widescreen ratio of 2.35:1. Notably, The Red Balloon and White Mane benefit from new 4K restorations, while the others have undergone 2K restorations. These restorations were sourced from scans of the original 35mm camera negatives.
Across the board, all five presentations are pretty striking, with strong encodes. However, the standout presentations are undoubtedly the two sourced from the 4K restorations—The Red Balloon and White Mane. Both movies showcase exceptional levels of detail, displaying a solid rendering of the fine-grain structure present in each, which results in a striking film-like quality. Moreover, the black-and-white cinematography of White Mane most notably benefits from this upgrade, the expanded grayscale cleanly rendering the skies while helping to pull all those finer details present in the film’s natural settings.
The Red Balloon is a color film, though, almost certainly by design, it features an incredibly dreary color palette, to the point it almost looks black-and-white itself. The only pops of color come from the film’s central red balloon, which boasts an intense and vivid red, and the other balloons that pop up throughout the film. The colors look pretty good, though they are warmer than previous presentations. Ultimately, I found this fine, as the older color scheme could feel too cold.
The other black-and-white films—Bim and Circus Angel—also benefit from a broader range in grays, excellent whites, and rich black levels. Both can go a little soft in places (particularly Bim), but I think this is inherent to the original film materials. Grain is rendered well for both, and no digital anomalies show up. For Bim, Criterion includes the longer 54-minute French and 37-minute English cuts, but both are sourced from the same restoration.
Stowaway in the Sky, the lone widescreen film in this collection, might be considered the weaker among the five films. This likely relates to the source materials and, plausibly, the specific anamorphic lens utilized during filming (it was shot in the French “Dyaliscope”). Some instances of distortion are noticeable within some regions of the frame, resulting in a slightly “squished” appearance. It also appears that Eastmancolor film stock was used, contributing to average color rendering and more pronounced grain. Nevertheless, the digital presentation remains solid and presents no explicit defects.
On that note, all five films have been gorgeously restored, and nothing remains outside of a few minor blemishes here and there. A lot of work has gone into these, and the results look excellent.
The Red Balloon (1956): 9/10 White Mane (1953): 9/10 Bim, the Little Donkey (1951): 8/10 Stowaway in the Sky (1960): 8/10 Circus Angel (1965): 8/10
Criterion includes all five films' original French monaural soundtracks, presented in lossless single-channel PCM. Criterion also includes alternate English soundtracks for all but The Red Balloon. The English soundtrack for Bim is only available alongside the shorter 37-minute version of the film and is also presented in lossless PCM. White Mane, Stowaway in the Sky, and Circus Angel are given 1.0 Dolby Digital soundtracks.
The French soundtracks all sound terrific. Despite the age of the materials or shooting conditions, most of them show a remarkable range level while also sounding sharp and clean with no noticeable distortion or filtering. Bim does sound a bit flatter compared to the other films, though I suspect it comes down to the source materials.
The English soundtracks are another story. The one for Circus Angel is ultimately fine, as is Bim’s, though the latter is harmed by an insufferable narration that must explain the whole film because it trims so much out. There are odd and jarring cuts, which are made more pronounced due to apparent jumps in the soundtrack. That narration problem continues in Stowaway due to Jack Lemmon talking over most of the film, which isn’t necessary. White Mane’s English soundtrack sounds awful because it has this hollow “home video” sound, as though its narration (provided by Peter Strauss) was captured over a Camcorder microphone.
I like that Criterion includes these soundtracks, mainly since children who are not fond of subtitles would still get a lot out of these, but the French tracks are the way to go.
Criterion puts together a handsome-looking set, though sadly, it skimps on the features. The first disc—which features The Red Balloon, White Mane, and Bim—includes two archival television interviews with director Albert Lamorisse, along with a newly recorded interview with his son, Pascal Lamorisse. The two television interviews from 1957 and 1959, respectively, run between 7 and 8 minutes and feature the director talking about his films and how he fell into filmmaking. The ’57 one is pretty fun, though, as he takes questions from a panel of children who had seen The Red Balloon and, somewhat humorously from my perspective, challenge him on the blending of reality and fantasy in it. For his 23-minute contribution, Pascal recalls his father’s work and legacy, sharing his own experiences from appearing in his films, and explains how his father was just a “kid at heart” who was aiming to do his own thing outside of what other French filmmakers were doing at the time.
To extend on that, Criterion also includes the 48-minute 2008 documentary My Father Was a Red Balloon, found on the second disc alongside Stowaway in the Sky and Circus Angel. Pascal also appears in this but is accompanied by his daughter, Lysa. The two go through his father’s archives (including designs around his films and home movies) and revisit his films, including others not included in this set. It’s a wonderful little appreciation, but there is also a pleasant little surprise when actress Juliette Binoche and director Hou Hsiao-hsien show up concerning the release of Hou’s Flight of the Red Balloon.
Unfortunately, there is no academic material outside of David Cairn’s excellent essay in the included booklet (which I think would have translated into a nice video piece), along with nothing else of note. The material we get is fine, but the release feels thin for a collection of Lamorisse’s work.
For a collection of Albert Lamorisse’s work, the features feel incredibly thin, but the presentations for all five films are at least all outstanding.