The best children’s stories can be a delight for adults, too. That’s certainly the case with Albert Lamorisse’s 1956 short film, The Red Balloon. The story is set in the run-down Ménilmontant neighborhood of Paris. A little boy, played by the director’s son Pascal, is walking to school one morning when he discovers a red balloon tangled around a lamp post. He “rescues” it and takes it to school with him. Along the way, the boy discovers that the balloon has a mind of its own. It follows him like a stray dog, and together they face the terrors, and tedium, of childhood.
The film, shown above in its entirety, earned Lamorisse an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay and a Palme d’Or for Best Short Film at the Cannes Film Festival, along with near-universal praise from critics. “The Red Balloon is a wonderful movie for children,” says New York Times film critic A.O. Scott in the “Critics’ Picks” video below. “It’s also a uniquely insightful movie about childhood.” In a 2008 essay, “The Red Balloon: Written on the Wind,” the children’s author Brian Selznick writes of his life-long appreciation for the film:
As a child, I longed for two specific things that I now realize Lamorisse’s movie embodies: the presence of a loving friend and the knowledge that real magic exists in the world. Childhood, in so many ways, is about learning to navigate the world around us, to make sense of what seems overwhelming and gigantic. Having a special companion makes that experience more manageable and less terrifying. To kids, the world of grown-ups is often alien and untranslatable, and so magic becomes a lens through which the incomprehensible universe (as Einstein once called it) becomes comprehensible.
Many Americans remember seeing The Red Balloon for the first time as a 16mm film projected in elementary school classrooms and cafeterias. With the 2008 release of the Criterion Collection DVD, many are rediscovering the movie–and perhaps over-analyzing it–from the perspective of adulthood. “An adult watching The Red Balloon will not find it difficult to see the title character as a symbol of spirituality, friendship, love, transcendence, the triumph of good over evil, or any of the countless other things that a simple, round red balloon can represent,” writes Selznick. “But perhaps we’re better off enjoying some things the way a child understands them: not as metaphors but as stories. In the end, I think there’s something nice about allowing the balloon to just be. I guess that’s what you do with good friends–you let them be themselves.”