The Red Balloon (1956)
On my “to see” pile for a long time, this French 34 minute live action short from 1956, directed by Albert Lamorisse (no, me either) is quite simply breathtakingly magical. Knowing it was French, and thus meant subtitles, had prevented me from putting it on before now. To all parents of children just learning to read: this film has about four lines of dialogue. They are well spaced out, and were no bother to either of my children. The rest is purely visual.
And what visuals there are. A young boy finds a balloon on his way to school, unties it, and takes it with him. When he gets home at the end of the day, his mother throws it out of the window, but the balloon returns, and thus begins a wonderfully playful relationship with the boy. Blessed with a mind of its own, the balloon is anthropomorphized in a way that is redolent of other classic anthropomorphisms. Herbie in The Love Bug, or the magic carpet in Aladdin. Disney in particular does this well, but here there is a stripped back, raw beauty to the interplay between the balloon and the boy. The palette is nearly drained of colour, and so consequently the balloon is a bright ball of red that stands out as a circle of joy against the dour backing.
The Red Balloon is about friendship, fantasy, and also of danger. It is a life lesson to children on the fleeting nature of existence, wrapped up in a 34 minute film about a balloon. That we come to care for this inanimate object in so short a time is indicative of the quality of film-making. I could watch this time and again and my children were entranced by the action, however minimal it may be. (Lots of walking, not a lot else.) A stand-out scene of great humour comes when the boy, holding the red balloon, meets a girl holding a blue balloon. The romantic to-and-fro between the two balloons is winningly endearing.