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The Red Balloon Movie Essays

The best children's stories can be a delight for adults, too. That's certainly the case with Albert Lamorisse's 1956 short film, The Red Balloon. The story is set in the run-down Ménilmontant neighborhood of Paris. A little boy, played by the director's son Pascal, is walking to school one morning when he discovers a red balloon tangled around a lamp post. He "rescues" it and takes it to school with him. Along the way, the boy discovers that the balloon has a mind of its own. It follows him like a stray dog, and together they face the terrors, and tedium, of childhood.

The film, shown above in its entirety, earned Lamorisse an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay and a Palme d'Or for Best Short Film at the Cannes Film Festival, along with near-universal praise from critics. "The Red Balloon is a wonderful movie for children," says New York Times film critic A.O. Scott in the "Critics' Picks" video below. "It's also a uniquely insightful movie about childhood." In a 2008 essay, "The Red Balloon: Written on the Wind," the children's author Brian Selznick writes of his life-long appreciation for the film:

As a child, I longed for two specific things that I now realize Lamorisse's movie embodies: the presence of a loving friend and the knowledge that real magic exists in the world. Childhood, in so many ways, is about learning to navigate the world around us, to make sense of what seems overwhelming and gigantic. Having a special companion makes that experience more manageable and less terrifying. To kids, the world of grown-ups is often alien and untranslatable, and so magic becomes a lens through which the incomprehensible universe (as Einstein once called it) becomes comprehensible.

Many Americans remember seeing The Red Balloon for the first time as a 16mm film projected in elementary school classrooms and cafeterias. With the 2008 release of the Criterion Collection DVD, many are rediscovering the movie--and perhaps over-analyzing it--from the perspective of adulthood. "An adult watching The Red Balloon will not find it difficult to see the title character as a symbol of spirituality, friendship, love, transcendence, the triumph of good over evil, or any of the countless other things that a simple, round red balloon can represent," writes Selznick. "But perhaps we're better off enjoying some things the way a child understands them: not as metaphors but as stories. In the end, I think there's something nice about allowing the balloon to just be. I guess that's what you do with good friends--you let them be themselves."

The Red Balloon - Wordless Masterpiece

                             In 1956, a 34 minute short, and an almost wordless film came out in France, and immediately won the hearts of children and adults. It was the first short film to earn a Academy Award for original screenplay, and the first to receive a Palme d'Or ar Cannes. Fifty six years later, it still remains as one of the great children's films of all time. The key to its everlasting endurance is in its simplicity. The lack of elaboration of interpretation leaves it as something timeless. And yet behind its simple mindedness lies a mountain of metaphor that has kept critics, and fans talking for five decades. 

                       This 34-minute fable begins with the balloon itself, which looks like no other balloon you've ever seen. It's so shiny and tactile, so luscious in its utter balloon-ness. Pascal, a wee Parisian grade-schooler, frees a balloon that he finds tied to a lamppost; the balloon shows its gratitude by following the boy where ever he goes. The two go, inseparable. When the frowning headmaster tells the boy to leave his balloon outside, the balloon waits, bobbing in the air. With its many stairs and slanting alleyways, the blue-gray Paris is like a maze, constantly threatening to come in between the boy and his new pal, but like a magnet or a dog starved for attention, the balloon always comes back to him.

                     And that's pretty much it. But what a magic director Albert Lamorisse weaves with such a story. His crew used a variety of puppeteering techniques, most of which still remain invisible. The clarity of a blu-ray or dvd might reveal the thin string in few shots, but even then you have to be keenly looking for it. The balloon's behavior, created through mime leads us to opening our hearts to this lively creature. "The Red Balloon" is in Technicolor and was splendidly shot by Edmond Sechan. The special effects would be insignificant, however, without the elegant charm of the story they are serving. The 6-year-old boy was played by the director's son Pascal. 

                    A group of neighborhood bullies chase the balloon through a perilously narrow corridor, throwing rocks as it tries to escape. Lamorisse suggests that kids are always keenly tuned to the objects of the world around them: After the boy loses his red friend, a montage of balloons across the city shows them flying to his side and, in the final shot, launching him into the sky. For Lamorisse, then, the pleasures of childhood are as fleeting as they are ecstatic. 

                   Albert Lamorisse represents childhood as lonely and barren. The first time we see Pascal, he is alone. He ignored or taunted by his peers. His mother is elderly and fierce, remote in age and emotion. She drags him into church without looking at him. He sees in the red balloon the neglected child he is, tied to a post and alone. He finds the balloon is excluded as he is excluded, forbidden on the bus, home and in school. Pascal walks past gray buildings, gray streets, sidewalks. He himself dresses in gray  from his every day uniform to his Sunday suit So, Lamorisse metaphorically shows a red balloon, which adds some color to Pascal's life. 
                  When the bullying kids chases down the red balloon with stones, Lamorisse poignantly symbolizes the dreams and the cruelty of those who puncture them. And yet all of this remains for the viewer to decide. The director refuses to push any subtext, delighting instead in the chance to simply watch this story unfold. He captures the events with an eyes, that never questions, doubts, or nudges a point of view. It remains appreciated by movie-lovers as they age, not out of mere nostalgia, but out of a true respect for a marvelous work of art. 

                 Take the children away from their play-stations and make them watch this extraordinary film. And, there is no age limit to discover the marvelous effects of Lamorisse’s vivid and boundless imagination.

The Red Balloon - IMDb 

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