Oh, for the simplicity of The Red Balloon!
When was it decided that children only liked films that were overly designed and spastically edited? Was it when the A.D.D. kids grew up and started making films themselves? Or was it when the bean counters gained control and started marketing and focus grouping everything to death?
French filmmaker Albert Lamorisse remembered that it doesn't take much to capture a child's imagination, and that's why his 1956 short film The Red Balloon has remained an ageless classic, finding a place in the hearts of every new generation that has come along since its release. The concept is so obvious and perfect it's amazing it hadn't been done before. Young Pascal, played by the director's son, leaves his Parisian home for school, and on the way, finds a red balloon tangled around a street lamp. He carries it with him, treating it like a precious treasure to be protected, and as his reward, the balloon takes on life and begins to follow Pascal around on its own.
It's the wish fulfillment of an imaginary friend. One day this pal that only you can see unexpectedly gains form, striking back at the disbelievers and shielding you from life's bullies in a way you can't do yourself. Who wouldn't want a red balloon that can float through the air and bonk your school's principal on his head?
Much of The Red Balloon is spent traveling the streets of Paris, and I was caught completely unaware by Edmond Sechan's tremendous photography in the picture. Though shot in a full frame aspect ratio, Sechan keeps his shots wide in order to capture the full panorama of the city's architecture and the beautiful skies that hang overhead. The balloon moves through the landscape like a giant "You Are Here" dot on a map, a special tour guide to lead us through the City of Lights. Since the movie's central themes touch on the joy of viewing life with innocent eyes, it's only too fitting that the camera lens should have the same sense of wonder. This new DVD print is sublime. It's so clear, we see every crack in every wall, every detail of the city's canvas, no matter how small. The special effects that keep the balloon afloat are completely invisible, as well. The magician protects the integrity of his tricks.
The genius of The Red Balloon is that it's a metaphor for childhood itself. Pascal is at an age where his imagination lacks for nothing, and the world around him is a glorious place that can only be sullied by the people who have lost their youthful perceptions. Adults don't understand Pascal's attachment to his balloon and see it as a hindrance. (Excepting the old janitor, my favorite of the passing characters in The Red Balloon. Completing the cycle of life, the old man has returned to childhood and is able to appreciate the magic of a basic toy.) The other kids want to possess it and destroy it, the mob being afraid of what they don't understand and envious of what they don't have. In its way, this is also the plight of the artist: discouragement is everywhere, people are afraid of what's new, and we hate it when our friends become successful.
Thankfully, Albert Lamorisse feels that the child and the artist in us all deserves to be nurtured. Thus, in his world, kindness and imagination are rewarded, and innocence is preserved. In those final images, when the balloons of the city rally to Pascal's defense, lifting him high above the fray, one little boy flies away from cynicism and despair, and in watching The Red Balloon, so can we all. Let the marketing departments spend billions to try to make us feel like kids again; I can buy myself a balloon for less than a buck.
Criterion will be coupling 'The Red Balloon' (1956) with Albert Lamorisse's award winning black and white short 'White Mane' (1953) at an even better price of $20 retail, though you should find it much cheaper.
Too bad I purchased both DVDs (along with Criterion release of Bill Mason's 'Paddle to the Sea')
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