Arts Listings

Childhood Memories: ‘The Red Balloon’

Friday November 23, 2007

There’s a magical time in childhood when the fiction of film is nearly indistinguishable from the reality of life, a time when a child still has a willingness and an ability to believe that magic is possible, and that maybe, just maybe, he can be its agent.  

I was at that age when George Lucas’ original Star Wars trilogy was at its peak. It seemed to me entirely possible that such a cosmic drama indeed took place light years ago in a faraway galaxy, and that it might be still be in progress, maybe even somewhere in my neighborhood. Lucas’ attempt to construct a myth was successful, and I, and a gazillion other kids around the world, were his silent collaborators.  

It doesn’t take a battery of special effects and widescreen melodrama to grab hold of a child’s imagination, however. Another film held sway over my young imagination, one that approached the world of youth and dreams from the opposite end of the spectrum.  

Albert Lamorisse’s Academy Award-winning The Red Balloon (1959) was a major fixture in my childhood, a seemingly perennial treat bestowed on me and my fellow students throughout elementary school. And, judging by a casual survey of Internet posts on the topic, my school was hardly unique; it seems, when it comes to The Red Balloon, no American child was left behind. It seemed very real to me the first time I saw it, and though the reality of it faded as I grew older, successive viewings never failed to enthrall.  

The Red Balloon and White Mane (1953), another of Lamorisse’s children’s films, are getting a theatrical release from Janus Films. The two short films (approximately 35 minutes each) will screen as a double feature beginning today at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas in downtown Berkeley.  

The Red Balloon follows a few days in the life of Pascal (Pascal Lamorisse, the director’s son). In the opening scene he climbs a lamppost to untangle a red balloon, which he carries with him for the rest of the day. When he returns home in the afternoon, his mother discards the balloon by releasing it from their apartment window. But the balloon, grateful to the boy for having rescued it, hangs around, and in the morning it descends to street level again to join Pascal as he walks out the door and starts the long walk to school.  

From that point on the two are inseparable. However, the pair draws the attention of a pack of bullies who chase Pascal and the balloon through the streets and empty lots of Paris. The chase culminates in a remarkable scene in which we see just how well Lamorisse has managed to anthropomorphize the balloon. In a single long shot, the balloon slowly deflates—an oddly painful moment that drew tears from many a rapt child in my classes. But what follows is an uplifting scene that perfectly embodies the fantasies of childhood.  

The White Mane is also the story of childhood and friendship, this time between a boy and a seemingly untamable wild horse. Again Lamorisse produces an evocative tale, beautifully photographed, that examines the compassion and dreams of a young boy. 

White Mane is a horse among horses, the leader of his herd, proud, defiant and elusive. Ranchers try to catch and tame him, but none can hold onto him for long. But the boy is able to prove his devotion and sincerity to the horse, and what develops is another magical friendship that concludes with another of Lamorisse’s fairy tale endings.