In hindsight, it’s easy to fault the United Artists execs mystified by this serious-minded childhood fable, doubting a commercial angle & all but refusing to release the film. (Exec Producer Francis Coppola snuck it into the New York Film Festival where it emerged a critical and commercial hit.) Yet, this enchanted boy-and-his-horse story is even more impossible to imagine coming out of today’s market-research/development hell driven studio system. Who would dare to demand the levels of concentration the film asks (and rewards) from the younger crowd, especially in its near-silent first half. But then, this isn’t a ‘family pic’ that’s only for kiddies; it really is for the whole family. Perhaps it helped that the creative team was nearly new to features: from director Carroll Ballard to scripter Melissa Mathison; from lighting-cameraman Caleb Deschanel to editor Robert Dalva. Same goes for Kelly Reno, the great freckle-faced kid discovered for the lead. And what a horseman! Divided in two quite different parts, the first half is the most original. After a ship-bound prologue, an all but silent survival story as a shipwrecked boy, and the princely horse whose straggling tether-line saved him, build up a relationship. Part two is more conventional, but equally well played; a sort of abstracted, or perhaps cleansed, horse race underdog victory tale. So much like NATIONAL VELVET/’44, they even got Mickey Rooney in something of the same role he played 35 years back. (Don’t worry, Mick’s probably never been better.*) Mathison, with a lot of help from the editing, pulls off a series of masterful story ellipses, skipping over sticky narrative beats without ever losing her audience or giving us time to question plausibility. While Ballard & Deschanel keep adding spells of wonderment, visually, of course, but also in coaxing elegant supporting perfs from Clarence Muse & Teri Garr. Three-plus decades on, it's even more an astonishment. Watch (and listen) to what they do with the big racing finish. Come to think of it, just how many great set pieces can one two-hour pic have? Be sure to take in the gorgeous end credits as well as some unusually useful EXTRAs on Criterion’s fine remastered DVD. Likable interviews with Ballard & Deschanel, plus their first collaboration on the short RODEO/’69 where every grain on the 16mm color stock seems to speak its own cowboy-bluesy tale.
DOUBLE-BILL: *While NATIONAL VELVET/’43 is the likely pairing, WHITE MANE/’53, from Albert Lamorisse of RED BALLOON/’56 fame, is even closer to the mark (and only 40").
ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: Even with E.T./’82 as follow-up, scripter Melissa Mathison had a paltry five more feature film credits thru 2015. Same for director Carroll Ballard.