Yesterday, in 1783, the Montgolfier brothers in France launched the first balloon into the air. It floated up a quarter of a mile and was carried by the wind for a mile, and before it landed, ten minutes later, it had opened a new chapter of human history -- people had actually begun to fly. An amazing event. A dream, a fantasy come true. A triumph of the airy visions of the imagination over the cruel gravities of the earth.
It's not surprising, then, that children, those genetic carriers of the imagination, and ballooons have been linked together ever since. Just a few years after the Montgolfiers' flight, in The Magic Flute, Mozart has three angelic boys appear onstage in a balloon to encourage characters in distress. Jules Verne and, later, L. Frank Baum frequently used balloons as the transportation of choice in their fantasy stories. Winnie - the - Pooh goes in search of honey dangling from the end of a balloon; Babar and Celeste take their honeymoon in a balloon; and in his film The Red Balloon, Albert Lamorisse gathers together all the balloons of Paris to carry a child, whose red balloon has been destroyed by bullies, to a place where violence and intolerance have been mercifully left behind.
But of all the wonderful balloon stories, one of the most engaging is Terry Gilliam's movie version of the famous collection of eighteenth century European tall tales, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. This is one of the great family movies, especially if you have older children who are primed for fantasy by Harry Potter, The Never-Ending Story, and, perhaps, by The Princess Bride but who haven't had much to look at lately, and missed this gem when it came out in 1989. It's clever, thrilling movie-making on a sweeping scale, spinning the yarn of the Baron's grand adventures to find his four friends who can help him, through their amazing talents, to save a town that's besieged by an invading army.
At one point the aged, though still intrepid, Baron tells us how the world has changed -- it's "made of laws now: laws of hydraulics, laws of social dynamics, laws of this, that and the other. No place for three-legged cyclops in the South Seas. No place for cucumber trees and oceans of wine. No place for me." This movie is a tonic for all that overwhelming Reason and a triumph for the powers of fantasy and balloons.
Copyright 2003 © John Cech
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