These days, it seems for a movie to have a chance to capture the imagination of filmgoing audiences of all ages, it has to have wall-to-wall CGI, an assortment of doody jokes and sly winks to the grown-ups, and a tie-in deal with Burger King. The Criterion Collection, however, recently released sterling new DVD editions of The Thief of Baghdad and "The Red Balloon," two films each more than 50 years old, each supplying a lesson in the wonder simpler times could produce on screen.
Admittedly, when The Thief of Baghdad was released in 1940 it was the equivalent of a Pixar mega-blockbuster, a big-budget spectacle utilizing the latest in technological dazzle. Indeed, the film's use of the preeminent artificial effect of the day is evident from the first frames, when the red sails of a ship billow over a bounding blue sea: Technicolor, incredibly vivid in the Criterion transfer.
It's a good thing directors Ludwig Berger and Michael Powell went nuts with the eye candy and cinematic legerdemain. John Justin, the actor who plays our hero, Prince Ahmad, is a charisma-free meatstick, the kind of rangy, mouth-breathing, can't-grow-a-mustache dude you see onscreen most often in porn; June Duprez, who plays Ahmad's princess true love, is pleasant enough but hardly worth grand larceny. Without worthy heroes, the story hinges on a good villain and some decent comic relief—Conrad Veidt and Hollywood token South Asian Sabu, respectively. The former plays Jaffar, the sinister vizier who usurps Ahmad's throne, blinds him, and kidnaps the princess for his own. The latter plays Abu, a street urchin who befriends the fallen Ahmad and goes to the literal ends of the earth to help him regain his throne and his love.
For the first several reels, it's easy to mostly gawk at the sets and matte paintings and marvel at those vibrant Technicolor reds, but the film picks up steam once it more or less shoves past Ahmad. Abu embarks on a quest that introduces him to a towering, evil-tempered genie (African-American actor Rex Ingram in green face paint, a topknot ponytail, and a red diaper) and takes him to a vast mountaintop temple where Abu makes his way inside a goddess statue the size of an office building and battles a giant spider in its web. You could outdo the effects on a Mac laptop these days, but it's imaginative stuff and thrilling despite, or maybe because of, its dinkiness: When Ingram runs a few thudding steps, spreads his arms, and launches himself into the air to fly, I almost expected him not to make it.
There's a little more here than minarets and blue-screen derring-do, though, and that's almost entirely due to Veidt. Ahmad may love the princess, but so does Jaffar, and his machinations to make her forget her simpy true love and fall in love with him are marked not with villainous camp but with real vulnerability and seething frustration. Veidt had a long and distinguished career, appearing in everything from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari to Casablanca, and he almost rips a hole in this fantasy fluff with his burning-eyed intensity. He got top billing here and he earns it. (It's worth noting that the 1924 silent version of The Thief of Baghdad still packs plenty of delights and surprises, too, thanks to some equally inventive-for-the-time visual effects and the pure physical presence of star Douglas Fairbanks.)
Of course, a filmmaker doesn't have to go to all that trouble. Albert Lamorisse took his own young son Pascal, the streets of Paris, and a piece of latex filled with helium and tied to a string and created 34 minutes of pure magic. He won himself an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, too, despite the fact that "The Red Balloon" features maybe a half dozen lines of actual dialogue. That's because the timeless short (released by Criterion as a stand-alone disc at budget price) is a master class in visual storytelling and building character without having to explain anything, much less everything.
On his way to school one day, Pascal rescues a big, shiny red balloon snagged at the top of a lamppost. The balloon repays this kindness by adopting the boy, following him to class, floating outside his apartment window, even harassing a teacher who gives him a hard time. Of course, other kids are jealous of the balloon, and soon a gang of bullies is chasing Pascal and the red balloon through narrow alleys and vacant lots, pelting the balloon with rocks. The denouement is both heartbreaking and throat-lump transcendent, and I've seen it reduce a 6-year-old raised on Spongebob Squarepants and Ben 10 Alien Force to rapt silence. And all Lamorisse does, really, is use some wire to make a balloon follow a little boy around. Now that's a good trick.