This past holiday season I had the opportunity to watch and play with Evan, my almost two-year old godson. First, we played with a simple alphabet puzzle. The lettered pieces were of a variety of colors. When he completed his puzzle, he’d either smile with satisfaction or applaud his own conquering, always with a precocious “hee hee”. Of course, every time he finished it was the same outcome, the dilemma that there was no more puzzle to solve and the instant desire to solve something else. He persevered, of course, and started all over again.
The Red Balloon is set in Paris, yet the filmmakers took great pains to show the city from an everyday point-of-view instead of as a tourist would see it. No Eiffel Tower, no Cathedral of Notre Dame, yet it is still very much Paris as a child would live in it.
The next morning, on Christmas day, he was gifted one of the most classic of children’s toys… the jack-in-the-box. The jack-in-the-box is both a rite of passage and a kind of Rorschach inkblot test for a toddler. When they see the weasel go pop for the first-time, they either react with a thrilling sense of astonishment or cry at what will be a moment of horror that will haunt their dreams for many nights to come.
Fortunately, he loved it. There were many “hee hee hees”. A grown-up had to help him pull the crank but in every pop his joy never waned. The jack-in-the-box could never let him down. It would always pop with precision and he could trust that the mere mechanical physics of a jack was an absolute. This is the wondrous nature of toys. They are loyal. They give love. They are our friends.
The film was written and directed by Albert Lamorisse and featured the writer/director’s 6 year old son Pascal as the little boy at the center of the story.
Such is the case with the red balloon in The Red Balloon. The film was directed by Albert Lamorisse, who also invented the popular Parker Brothers board game, Risk, was released in 1956 and winner of the Palm d’Or for best short film at the Cannes Film Festival. At 36 minutes it was the shortest film to have ever won a major Academy Award. Nary a word is spoken, but it took home the prize for Best Original Screenplay.
I had known of the film’s existence for a couple of decades now and aware of its acclaim as a seminal children’s classic. The Red Balloon was a staple at public library screenings when the film was finally released on VHS in the 1980s. This is the kind of movie that I will sometimes refer to as homework, one in which any film-buff must see to keep up with the evolving cinema vernacular. I decided to finally cross it off my list when recently I was flipping through the programming guide to Turner Classic Movies.
Though The Red Balloon features barely any audible dialogue, it was the winner of the 1957 Academy Award for Best Screenplay and to this day is the shortest film to ever receive the honor.
The Red Balloon was shot in Paris, France, the director’s home country. There is an architectural beauty to Paris, of course, but the film deliberately avoids showing any hint of its most famous cultural landmarks (i.e. Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame Cathedral). The film has a remarkable sense of place. The movie opens on a shot of a lovely sunrise horizon with a village as the foreground, but the landscape and streets are devoid of the color that Paris is known for.
Enter a little boy of about six-years old, played by Lamorisse’s son, Pascal, as himself. It doesn’t take long for things to brighten up in this city when Pascal stumbles upon a red balloon. The balloon is attached to a thick, white string tied to the top of a lamp post. It is not clear if Pascal stumbled upon the balloon or if it was simply where he hitched it the night before. I like to think that the balloon was always there, because sometimes things just are.
Schoolchildren of the era will immediately recognize The Red Balloon as it had one of the largest non-theatrical runs of all time. Thousands of 16 millimeter prints were sent to public schools in Europe and the United States for viewing.
As soon as the balloon latches on to Pascal their bond is quickly sealed. To the uninitiated and with such a short running time, there is little left to expand on without spoiling so many of The Red Balloon’s simple charms. It was a direct inspiration to Disney Pixar’s film Up (2009) and shares a kinship to the assorted collection of Pixar’s short films, taking a simple, yet mature, concept and playfully riffing on it for 10 to 15 minutes. The existential duel between Day and Night in Day and Night comes to mind. Click here to view the Pixar animated short Day and Night.
It will not be lost on anyone that the red balloon is a symbol. Like my godson’s jack-in-the-box, it too, is a Rorschach test of sorts. When he gets a little older, I will introduce him to this film. And just the mere act of his watching the film will be a proclamation: he has good taste in cinema.
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