The Red Balloon, a Critical Analysis of ChildhoodEnchantment, Curiosity, and LossIn the film The Red Balloon (Lamorisse, 1956), fromthe very beginning, we are confronted with two of the film’s most prominentthemes: enchantment and curiosity. This sense of enchantment and curiosity,paired with a portrayal of friendship, innocence, and loss, is essentiallychildhood in a nutshell. The young boy quickly finds out that the world caninterfere in unexpected ways, and that sometimes life doesn’t quite turn outthe way we want it to. The red balloon is symbolic of everything we want in theworld as a young child: friendship, and a longing for real magic in the world.
Inthis writing, we will analyze the developing theme of childhood and how thismain theme transitions throughout the course of the film. The 35-minute short film takes place in the run-downMénilmontant neighborhood of Paris (Springer, 2012). The film is directed byAlbert Lamorisse, who is internationally known for his short to medium lengthfilms involving the enchantment and vivid imagination of children (IMDb, 2017).The little boy, who is the main character of the film, is played by thefilmmaker’s son Pascal Lamorisse (Lanzagorta, 2008). The Red Balloon (Lamorisse, 1956) went on to win several filmawards including: Academy award for bestoriginal 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 toschool discovers a red balloon trapped on the top of a tall lamppost. At thispoint, he stops, looks around to see that nobody is coming, and climbs thelamppost to fetch his prize at the top. He then climbs back down the lamppost, holdingthe red balloon’s string between his teeth, and continues walking.
From thispoint forward, we embark on a journey with the little boy and his new belovedfriend, the red balloon, as they take on the trials and tribulations of theworld around them, running into a few problems along the way. In this scene,the audience can infer that the diegetic sense that will reiterate itselfthroughout the course of the film focuses on child-like curiosity andenchantment. A scene that portrays this childlike whimsy quitemovingly is in the closing scene of the film.
The boy’s beloved red balloon ispopped by a mischievous, neighborhood boy. In this moment, the scene abruptlycuts to many images of different balloons leaving their original owners, withthe hustle and bustle of the city in the background, to come together to form amultitude of balloons way off in the distant skyline, cascading the city sky withgreen, orange, yellow, red, and blue. The army of balloons find their way tothe little boy grieving the loss of his fallen friend (the red balloon), as theshot transitions to narrowly focus on the boy surrounded by a sea of colorfulballoons as he tries to grab as many as he can. Despite his loss and grief overhis beloved friend, a valuable life lesson presents itself in this scene, evenif the boy doesn’t know it. The life lesson being that all good things mustcome to an end someday, but that there are still reasons to smile despite theloss of something you love.
In other words, life goes on and happiness canstill be found even in the presence of sadness. His newfound friends (the massof colorful balloons) carry the little boy away, high above the city and highabove all the trouble and persecution that exists below him. Significant elements of mise-en-scene that add to theenchantment and whimsy of this film include: high contrast lighting and highcontrast color scheme. The set design is minimalistic, yet rustic, probably bydesign. The background is filled with run down buildings, and varying shades ofgreys, blacks, browns and whites. The sky is almost always gloomy and grey.
Thehustle and bustle of the people around him coexist with a sense of indifferencetowards the boy and his red balloon. The little boy’senchantment with his newfound friend is refreshing amidst all the tired facesaround him. The red balloon offers an overwhelminglydirect pop of color in the foreground that is captivating, compared to theoverstated monotony that the background offers. This element of mise-en-sceneis clever in the way that it wraps the audience up in the little boy’s fantasyworld and all that seems to matter is what’s happening between the boy and hisbeloved friend, the red balloon. The backdrop of the city, the hustle andbustle of the people in the background? These elements are seemingly irrelevantto what’s going on in the foreground between the boy and his balloon and allthe adventures they face together. With the conservative use of narrative, continuousediting is used heavily throughout the film to convey continuous and clearaction (Yale Film Studies, 2002).
This style of editing supports the viewer’sassumption that time and space is continuous between shots (Yale Film Studies,2002). In this instance, this style of editing is effective in portraying thestory of the little boy and his red balloon in the way that it shows theenchantment, joy, struggles and loss associated with their friendship, makingsure not to leave out any plot elements pertinent to understanding theportrayal of their friendship. Without the use of narrative to fill in the gapsin the story, transitional shots are used sparingly. A sequence of shots where childlike innocence isportrayed effectively, highlighting a sense of enchantment, whimsy anduninhibited tenderness is when the little boy treats the red balloon as his oneand only true friend, like he would a person, seeing as how he fails tointeract closely with any children his age throughout the whole film. Forexample, when the child shields the red balloon under a stranger’s umbrellamaking sure that his friend doesn’t get wet.
This scene invokes emotion in theaudience in a way that it is refreshing to see that childlike innocence andcare in society where those elements fade as we grow older. However, it alsoinvokes a sense of sadness in the audience regarding the inevitable fate of theballoon, knowing that the friendship between the little boy and his balloonwill not last forever, because the little boy is yet to confront this harshreality. The dynamic between the boy and his balloon is one that evolvesthroughout the film.
At first, he treats it like an object. He holds the stringit’s attached to between his teeth and lets it sway back and forth in the windwithout a care in the world. However, as the film progresses, he forms anattachment to the balloon and treats it as a friend, and something he wishes tohang onto and protect. On a lighter note, the interactions between the little boyand his balloon is a curious one. Italso brings into question how the balloon seemingly “obeys” the little boyscommands, and follows him wherever he goes.
The balloon seems to take on apersonality of its own, and it establishes a sense of magic and leaves theaudience guessing: is the balloon actually magical? Or is it just an illusionof the wind playing tricks on us? In conclusion, the diegesis of the film transitionsseveral times throughout the duration of the film: from a sense of enchantmentand whimsy, to loss and grief, and finally back to enchantment and whimsy oncemore. These transitions are representative of childhood in the way that aschildren 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 hestill finds a reason to smile despite his loss and grief.