Still flying after 52 years
By Tony Buchsbaum
When I was a kid, my mother bought me a large-trim hardcover called “The Red Balloon.” It was a storybook of photographs, with some text, about a young Parisian boy whose best friend is a red balloon. Odds are you know the story -- it follows him around, gets him into some trouble at school, then is burst by evil boys in the neighborhood -- so I won’t belabor it, but to me it was pretty miraculous, especially at the end when all those scores of colorful balloons come to rescue the boy, carrying him high above Paris to…well, to someplace where nasty bullies don’t throw rocks at balloons, I suppose.
Anyway, who knew it was a movie? I was a kid. But wouldn’t you know, it was a movie—and the book was comprised of stills from it.
The Red Balloon film, recently released on DVD from Janus Films, is as wondrous as the book was. A scant 34 minutes, it was directed by Albert Lamorisse and stars his son Pascal as the boy—and it is an absolutely and undeniably charming tale of friendship, disappointment, and redemption. The direction is, well, direct, without any sense of artifice. Lamorisse tells his story almost matter-of-factly, shot after simple shot. The film’s power rests almost entirely in just two things: the innocent charm of the his son Pascal’s natural way with the camera (that is, he virtually ignores it), and the knowing, almost winking charm of the balloon itself. It follows the boy, dips, drops, and flies—almost like a dog who’s eager to please.
I found it fascinating, as I was watching, that there seemed to be no special effects trickery in bringing the balloon to life—in the end, it is filled with more personality than helium. It’s very large, shiny, and red, stark in contrast to the gray and brown Paris buildings and rain-dampened streets. I have yet to figure out how Lamorisse made the thing work; it just seems to be, a character fully unto itself. Viewed against the movies made today, when even crossing the street can require a team of people creating some form of computer animation, The Red Balloon is grossly understated. I can’t say enough how simple this film is, and so refreshing in its simplicity. It seems to want for nothing more than to briefly entertain. When it’s over, you’re left story…but also with the nagging notion than while balloons don’t act this way in real life, this particular balloon certainly knows how to act in reel life.
The Red Balloon is a film for the ages…and a film for all ages. I haven’t yet found a way to pry my boys away from their special effects-laden adventures, but as soon as I do, this is what’s going into the DVD player.