The Red Balloon, a Critical Analysis of Childhood
Enchantment, Curiosity, and Loss

In the film The Red Balloon (Lamorisse, 1956), from
the very beginning, we are confronted with two of the film’s most prominent
themes: enchantment and curiosity. This sense of enchantment and curiosity,
paired with a portrayal of friendship, innocence, and loss, is essentially
childhood in a nutshell. The young boy quickly finds out that the world can
interfere in unexpected ways, and that sometimes life doesn’t quite turn out
the way we want it to. The red balloon is symbolic of everything we want in the
world as a young child: friendship, and a longing for real magic in the world. In
this writing, we will analyze the developing theme of childhood and how this
main theme transitions throughout the course of the film.

            The 35-minute short film takes place in the run-down
Ménilmontant neighborhood of Paris (Springer, 2012). The film is directed by
Albert Lamorisse, who is internationally known for his short to medium length
films involving the enchantment and vivid imagination of children (IMDb, 2017).
The little boy, who is the main character of the film, is played by the
filmmaker’s son Pascal Lamorisse (Lanzagorta, 2008). The Red Balloon (Lamorisse, 1956) went on to win several film
awards including:  Academy award for best
original screenplay and a Palme d’Or for best short film at the Cannes film festival
(Springer, 2012).  In the opening scene,
we watch the beginning of an adventure unfold when a little boy on his way to
school discovers a red balloon trapped on the top of a tall lamppost. At this
point, he stops, looks around to see that nobody is coming, and climbs the
lamppost to fetch his prize at the top. He then climbs back down the lamppost, holding
the red balloon’s string between his teeth, and continues walking. From this
point forward, we embark on a journey with the little boy and his new beloved
friend, the red balloon, as they take on the trials and tribulations of the
world around them, running into a few problems along the way. In this scene,
the audience can infer that the diegetic sense that will reiterate itself
throughout the course of the film focuses on child-like curiosity and
enchantment.

            A scene that portrays this childlike whimsy quite
movingly is in the closing scene of the film. The boy’s beloved red balloon is
popped by a mischievous, neighborhood boy. In this moment, the scene abruptly
cuts to many images of different balloons leaving their original owners, with
the hustle and bustle of the city in the background, to come together to form a
multitude of balloons way off in the distant skyline, cascading the city sky with
green, orange, yellow, red, and blue. The army of balloons find their way to
the little boy grieving the loss of his fallen friend (the red balloon), as the
shot transitions to narrowly focus on the boy surrounded by a sea of colorful
balloons as he tries to grab as many as he can. Despite his loss and grief over
his beloved friend, a valuable life lesson presents itself in this scene, even
if the boy doesn’t know it. The life lesson being that all good things must
come to an end someday, but that there are still reasons to smile despite the
loss of something you love. In other words, life goes on and happiness can
still be found even in the presence of sadness. His newfound friends (the mass
of colorful balloons) carry the little boy away, high above the city and high
above all the trouble and persecution that exists below him.

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            Significant elements of mise-en-scene that add to the
enchantment and whimsy of this film include: high contrast lighting and high
contrast color scheme. The set design is minimalistic, yet rustic, probably by
design. The background is filled with run down buildings, and varying shades of
greys, blacks, browns and whites. The sky is almost always gloomy and grey. The
hustle and bustle of the people around him coexist with a sense of indifference
towards the boy and his red balloon. The little boy’s
enchantment with his newfound friend is refreshing amidst all the tired faces
around him.  The red balloon offers an overwhelmingly
direct pop of color in the foreground that is captivating, compared to the
overstated monotony that the background offers. This element of mise-en-scene
is clever in the way that it wraps the audience up in the little boy’s fantasy
world and all that seems to matter is what’s happening between the boy and his
beloved friend, the red balloon. The backdrop of the city, the hustle and
bustle of the people in the background? These elements are seemingly irrelevant
to what’s going on in the foreground between the boy and his balloon and all
the adventures they face together.

            With the conservative use of narrative, continuous
editing is used heavily throughout the film to convey continuous and clear
action (Yale Film Studies, 2002). This style of editing supports the viewer’s
assumption that time and space is continuous between shots (Yale Film Studies,
2002). In this instance, this style of editing is effective in portraying the
story of the little boy and his red balloon in the way that it shows the
enchantment, joy, struggles and loss associated with their friendship, making
sure not to leave out any plot elements pertinent to understanding the
portrayal of their friendship. Without the use of narrative to fill in the gaps
in the story, transitional shots are used sparingly.

            A sequence of shots where childlike innocence is
portrayed effectively, highlighting a sense of enchantment, whimsy and
uninhibited tenderness is when the little boy treats the red balloon as his one
and only true friend, like he would a person, seeing as how he fails to
interact closely with any children his age throughout the whole film.   For
example, when the child shields the red balloon under a stranger’s umbrella
making sure that his friend doesn’t get wet. This scene invokes emotion in the
audience in a way that it is refreshing to see that childlike innocence and
care in society where those elements fade as we grow older. However, it also
invokes a sense of sadness in the audience regarding the inevitable fate of the
balloon, knowing that the friendship between the little boy and his balloon
will not last forever, because the little boy is yet to confront this harsh
reality. The dynamic between the boy and his balloon is one that evolves
throughout the film. At first, he treats it like an object. He holds the string
it’s attached to between his teeth and lets it sway back and forth in the wind
without a care in the world. However, as the film progresses, he forms an
attachment to the balloon and treats it as a friend, and something he wishes to
hang onto and protect.

            On a lighter note, the interactions between the little boy
and his balloon is a curious one.  It
also brings into question how the balloon seemingly “obeys” the little boys
commands, and follows him wherever he goes. The balloon seems to take on a
personality of its own, and it establishes a sense of magic and leaves the
audience guessing: is the balloon actually magical? Or is it just an illusion
of the wind playing tricks on us?

            In conclusion, the diegesis of the film transitions
several times throughout the duration of the film: from a sense of enchantment
and whimsy, to loss and grief, and finally back to enchantment and whimsy once
more. These transitions are representative of childhood in the way that as
children we often learn valuable life lessons and grow from them. In this case,
the little boy learns that all good things must come to an end someday, but he
still finds a reason to smile despite his loss and grief. 

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