Classic films: The Red Balloon

In this fantastical short, a young boy in postwar Paris befriends a big red balloon with a mind of its own. Treated as something precious that needs protection (cleverly passing from umbrella under umbrella) but also faces rejection (like the child’s mom at first, who throws it out the window). But the beauty of this movie is that the red balloon can mean anything. As with all great art, the creators allow us to interpret it as we wish, holding our hand along the way. Is it a metaphor for childhood innocence, for hope in a gray and gritty post-wast city, or our hopes and dreams, collectively fraught with society? That is for us to decide.

Like a painting, color is very important in this movie. The boy is wearing gray at all times, the backdrop of the buildings and streets are gray and most characters sport muted tones in the same conformity. The red balloon is cartoonishly big and a bright scarlet red. It’s almost poetic how whimsical it is amongst a sea of faded colors. Goes to show how much a little thing like color can go a long way, if used with a purpose. In this case, to make it stand out (red balloon is the title after all, and the central focus). It is worth noting that the effects of the balloon moving in its sentience hold up today. We truly believe it listens to the child when asked to stay put; while also purposely coming close and cheekily turning away at times when the child tries to grab its string, ever-so-slightly out of reach.

As this movie is mostly silent, the storytelling is mainly visual; but we do get a gentle soundtrack that enhances the sweetness of certain moments as well as the roughness of others. It is a constant, ever-impactful background.

The cinematography is simple and effective as well. Each aspect contributing to the larger atmosphere. Succinctly echoing the simplicity of the storytelling. There are moments of innocent humor, like when the boy steps into a house to hide and the camera stays on the street waiting just long enough to see the boy kicked out. Or the scene with the girl with the blue balloon, brimming with insouciance.

French cinema seems to be good at portraying childhood, in all its complexity, ringing true to its heroes and getting into the kids perspective (more on that in future classic film reviews). The Red Balloon, moreover, serves as a discourse on childhood, affectionately unfolding true emotions from children without dipping into the melodramatic. It shows childhood’s whimsy and innocence but also its intolerance and cruelty.

But just like in the movie, there is a world of hope, joy and color beyond any temporary loss or ephemeral sadness which serves as a reminder that through its ups and downs, bobbing like an inflated balloon, life is beautiful. 

It’s concision and execution is worth striving for, so I will take a lesson from it and stop here. You can make the red balloon whatever you want, so I’m making it five stars. 

A beautiful movie with artful visual storytelling and an engaging emotional reflection on life, childhood and hope – 🎈🎈🎈🎈🎈 (⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐)

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