The Blue Bird (1918)

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  • directed by Maurice Tourneur
  • starring Tula Belle, Robin Macdougall, Lillian Cook, Gertrude McCoy, Lyn Donelson, Charles Ascot, Tom Corless
  • Two peasant children, Mytyl and Tyltyl, are led by a fairy to search for the Blue Bird of Happiness.

What could have been a standard and straightforward children’s film was for me elevated by some of the most beautiful, moody, and haunting imagery I’ve ever seen, which at times had it playing more like a deep, atmospheric examination on the childhood experience. A popular way to market animated or children’s films, especially today with Pixar films or the rare ones from other studios, is to say your kid will love it and you as an adult will be able to happily endure it whether for its humor or somewhat mature undercurrent. The Blue Bird achieves that, for me due to its incredible look and mood, and then goes one better by using its visionary and at times abstract visual environments to transport whoever is watching, at whatever age, back to the time of seeing films and the world from a child’s eyes.

Sometimes that was a very specific reaction to something in the film, like the juxtaposition of cutting back and forth between the children sleeping and journeying through the magical landscape. Other times it’s an obscure feeling, like the look of the pair that Tourneur cast as the kids’ grandparents and how they viewed or treated their elders, that brought back long-ago feelings of family responsibility or simply just being a child and figuring out one’s role in life.

The film really kicks in with Fairy Berylune showing the children the world beneath the surface and the souls of all the everyday things they’ve until now taken for granted. Their pets come to life as humans and little vignettes introduce human characters dressed to represent the soul of water, the soul of fire, and the soul of sugar, for instance. There was a bride that forms from a spilled pitcher of milk and a guy who plays “wholesome bread,” shot screaming out of an oven. Before long the children’s house turns into a complete menagerie of animals, spirits, and self-moving furniture. I’ve never seen anything like it. The crew takes off in search of the bird and from there we experience scene after scene of pure imagination and inventive, artistic direction by Tourneur. I was surprised to find that Tourneur really did construct what was a perfect template for children’s fantasy films, both dark and juvenile, from The Wizard of Oz to later ones like Labyrinth.

Some films are made primarily to entertain, but then there are those with the sole purpose of making you feel something. In The Blue Bird, Tourneur was relentlessly hammering away at my sense of nostalgia and presenting a lot of ideas and scenes that I feel I’ve seen hundreds of times whether on film or in dreams.

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About classixquest
all the things I should have seen

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