The Red Balloon

The Red Balloon / Le ballon rouge

(France / Albert Lamorisse, 1956)

The red balloon is one of world cinema’s most celebrated shorts. A small boy (Pascal Lamorisse, the director’s son) is walking through the rundown district of Paris where he lives when he sees a red helium balloon with its string tangled around a tall black lamppost. He retrieves it and soon realizes the balloon is alive: it hovers outside his window when his mother will not allow it inside, follows him to school and to church, and becomes his companion on several small adventures. But older boys are envious of it. He runs from them but they catch him and pelt the balloon with stones. It starts to deflate and die until, finally, a horrid boy stamps it flat. As if hearing a call to action, all the other balloons in the city float out of the hands of children and street vendors and surround our boy. He clutches at their strings and, together, they lift him higher and higher into the sky. As the film ends, he is still floating upwards.

Maybe there are elements of religious allegory here (the way the other balloons rise up after the death of the first is a kind of resurrection, and the way they lift the boy towards the heavens is a kind of ascension), though what religious moral the film could have is unclear. Maybe, like Sheriff Woody in Toy Story (John Lasseter, 1995), the red balloon reminds us of that time in our childhoods when we could find a friend in any object to which we turned our imaginations. But the balloon works best as an emblem of innocence, and the film as an essay on it.

The balloon, beautiful and fragile, gives the boy a sense of excitement and awe that is alien to those around him and that cruel older children can easily destroy, forcing him to grow up too soon. It could represent any naive idea – the belief in Santa Claus, for example – that the world is too harsh to allow to persist for long. It is all the wonders of childhood seen in one simple object.

Illustration by Dave McMillan
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