Is it possible for a movie to succeed as a child’s tale and simultaneously maintain some real intellectual and emotional impact for an adult? Normally I believe not. When I watch children’s movies now I’m able to enjoy them on a number of levels but the ultimate impact of the movie is tempered by the fact that the dialogue, plot and very substance of the movie are often substantially “dumbed down” for a less sophisticated audience. The Red Balloon somehow avoids these pitfalls and provides as satisfying an experience for the adult viewer as it does a magical one for a younger audience. Made in 1956 by French filmmaker Albert Lamorisse and starring his own children, the film clocks in at only 34 minutes and has almost no dialogue. Perhaps it is these very facts that account for its success. If Lamorisse tried to sustain his magic for an hour and a half, or weighed it down with a lot of talking and explaining, the movie might have lost its special edge, but as it stands it manages to convey enough wonder for young audiences, yet packs enough philosophical wallop for an adult watcher.
The plot is simple enough: a boy finds a balloon on the street in a Paris slum. The balloon seems to have a personality and mind of its own. The balloon follows the boy, and seems to listen to him when he tells it to wait for him. The balloon itself takes on the qualities of a child. It is by turns curious, recalcitrant, happy, sad, playful, loyal and of course beautiful and irresistible. As the boy takes his balloon to school, on the bus, to his home etc. the balloon is subjected to many of the facets of the adult world; jealousy, greed, envy, cruelty and ultimately the impulse to destroy those things we can’t control or understand. As the boy and his balloon go through their day they seem to incur the wrath of every facet of society ultimately resulting in seemingly every boy in Paris chasing him through the street to destroy the balloon. In a beautifully filmed sequence the balloon loses its air and painfully dies. Then, magically, every balloon in Paris comes to the boy, Pascal, and lifts him above the gray streets in a magnificent, uplifting finale.
The thing that really sets The Red Balloon apart is the visual juxtaposition between the bleak streets of the slum that Pascal inhabits and the buoyant, Technicolor wonder of the red balloon itself. Lamorisse’s greatest achievement is that very contrast. Through the masterful use of lighting and angle the balloon and its overwhelming redness become a symbol of freedom, joy and childhood, bouncing across the morose streets, facing the distress of the adult world with the shield that its simple beauty and innocence provide.
I’ve seen The Red Balloon a number of times over the years, always expecting it to have lost its magical sway over my imagination. Surely this slight tale can’t still hold any surprise for me, yet this time was by far the most satisfying. Lamorisse has seemingly done the impossible: he has made an inanimate object the subject of real human emotion. Your heart rises with Pascal, as a bouquet of brightly colored balloons carry him over his sad Paris neighborhood, the potential magic promised by cinema is right there, dazzling your eyes and lifting your spirit. Not bad for a 34 minute kids’ movie.
- Paul Epstein