The Red Balloon (1956) – A Review

The Red Balloon 1956 movie
The Red Balloon

A young boy is on his way to school when he finds a red balloon. He soon discovers that this red balloon has a life of its own and the two form a bond as they wander around the Parisian streets.

I had first seen the French short film The Red Balloon (Le Ballon rougue) way back in elementary school. It was way back when I didn’t even know there was such a thing as a short film. And it was always a treat to watch it.

A screening usually happened the day before winter or summer vacation was about to begin. A day when the teachers knew it was pointless to try and teach us anything. The classroom blinds would be pulled, they’d fire up the old 16mm film projector and all attention would be drawn to that lighted square on the wall anticipating for the movie to begin.

For the next thirty-four minutes the classroom was quiet as we all sat transfixed. The only sound coming out of that room would be the clicking of the projector, occasional laughter and “ooooh’s” as we watched this simple story unfold.

The teachers must have loved that thirty-four minutes more than we did!

Watching The Red Balloon today it’s still as entertaining as it was when I first saw it. It’s one of those movies that no matter what age you are you can’t help watching it with a childlike innocence. Those are the best children’s stories, the ones that can work for everyone – including adults! It’s a timeless, beautifully told tale that has a universal appeal. I would imagine no matter what culture, country, or generation this movie was or will be seen by it will still work.

The Red Balloon French short film movie 1956

The long ago post-war Paris neighborhood the movie takes place in (which apparently has long been demolished) makes it look like the story is taking place in a fairy tale city. One of those old settings that existed a long time ago and you’d only find in old stories and books. Which ironically it is now.

The bright red balloon really stands out amongst the grey, hard setting. It’s a striking contrast and that alone makes the balloon appear to be something very special in this place. Cobblestone streets, endless stairways and alleys, the whole location gives off that ‘Once upon a time’ feeling.

One funny thing watching it now is how director Albert Lamorisse effectively makes his title character come to life. Obviously, there are some tricks employed in making the balloon move where he wanted. I imagine it was the most basic type of special effects and he came up with the simplest solutions to this – a clear string attached to the balloon probably.

But I never think about it, it’s never given away and it’s incredibly convincing. It’s a real testament to the filmmaking that now over fifty years later with all the advanced special effects we see on a daily basis in movies, such straightforward and antiquated techniques can still dazzle a viewer.

It’s a terrific little film and while I often think of it as a hidden gem, I’m always surprised by the amount of people who have seen and remember it. I don’t know how it happened, but apparently my elementary school wasn’t the only one showing this to its students. Supposedly they shipped thousands of prints of the movie to schools. It’s kind of odd when I wonder how that came about and why The Red Balloon became an unofficial part of our curriculum.

The film did pretty good away from the classrooms when it was first released. It won the Oscar for Best Screenplay. Lamorisse took the Palme d’Or at Canne for Best Short Film. But I think it was the exposure from all those classroom viewings by millions of kids that left its biggest impact. It’s probably one of the most famous short films most people know.

The Red Balloon French short film 1956

With any piece of art if you look closer and examine it more thoroughly symbolism, metaphors, meanings can start to appear. Perhaps there’s a larger message being conveyed? Once you start thinking about it it can open up avenues of theories.

Is the story trying to say something about society, spirituality, loneliness, growing up? What does the red balloon represent? Why is everyone against the red balloon? What does the ending mean?

There are some interesting questions to ponder and one could come up with some incredibly creative answers to them. However, I think there can be a bit too much overanalyzing and you start to look for answers to questions that aren’t there and just begin to overcomplicate it all.

So whenever I watch this movie I try to go back to being the wide-eyed little kid I was when I first saw it and try to enjoy it the same way I did back then. I simply watch it as a story of a nice red balloon that finds a friend.


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