It’s 1971 and a timid boy noses through the crowd in a church auditorium to get a view of the movie screen. That was me, back in the Bronx at the age of five, out of our cramped apartment for a few hours with my dad. I think it was my dad. He was an abusive alcoholic, true, but he also enjoyed a good film, while Mom mostly steered clear of them.
If I can't quite remember how I got there, I do remember the short I saw that afternoon. More than that, I remember feeling something very special for the first time. It was empathy.
If you’ve seen The Red Balloon (Albert Lamorrise, 1956) you know what I’m talking about. The lean, 34-minute plot is simple. A young boy named Pascal finds a red balloon entangled on a streetlight on his walk to school, retrieves it, and discovers that it's "alive." First he treats it like a pet, but over the course of the movie it becomes something of a friend. By the end, it's a strange, fun-house reflection, a symbol perhaps for the boy’s own individuality and identity, even (some have said) his soul. As such, little Pascal's red balloon is almost immediately under attack by the rest of the world.
It’s simply amazing how much emotional punch is packed into this little film. That’s the power of shorts; they have the freedom to indulge in symbolism, even rank, saccharine sentiment, but because of their brevity these things don’t reach the groan-inducing levels they might if given more time.
Amateurs borrow. Professionals steal. (Up, 2009)
The Red Balloon is also, in its way, the first non-Pixar “Pixar movie” and I’d back that up with what are obvious visual homages to it in films like Up, and that studio’s general penchant for retreading its basic setup. It’s been said elsewhere that the Pixar premise spans from “Toys with feelings” through “Cars with feelings”culminating (though not ending) with “Feelings with feelings” (Inside Out, 2015) which is certainly all pre-cursed here by this film's emotive red balloon. I recently spotted another film where Pixar continued to deploy the basic format begun by Lamorisse sixty years ago, though not quite nailing it; one of their rare movie ho-hums, The Blue Umbrella (2013).
The Blue Umbrella is loved by many, and isn’t a bad little film. Certainly my four-year old watched it three times in a row recently, laughing each time, but that’s about all. It’s a fun, peppy little “love story” between inanimate objects who we don’t over-invest in, and who give us a passing warm feeling when they finally wind up together despite inclement weather. It’s basically a long-form commercial in search of a product. It would probably sell a lot of Pepsi. But, once forgotten, I’m sure my daughter will never think about it again. It seems inspired by a brief scene in The Red Balloon where our characters cross paths with a little girl and her own blue balloon, coaxing a brief "aww, how cute" moment which quickly goes forgotten. The Blue Umbrella suffers a similar fate as a film.
What makes The Red Balloon so timeless, but something like The Blue Umbrella, so disposable? It's all in the aspiration.
I showed The Red Balloon to my daughter recently alongside The Blue Umbrella. She was perhaps a bit uneasy with the “real” people on screen in this earlier film, the strange period clothes, and also with its dated film look. But she quickly latched on to little Pascal and his unusual friend, and began narrating the action to herself in her bid to piece together the story. Then came the famous ending.
Abby went rigid and stopped narrating as the mischievous passel of boys crept in to entrap Pascal and his red balloon. I think she even stopped breathing for a moment...
What The Red Balloon does so well, that’s hard for others to emulate, is the most powerful task in storytelling, and the hardest. It creates an absolute need in the viewer to know what happens next, even if it's painful to watch. Not just a curiosity, mind you, as with the casual flirtation between two umbrellas, but a profound need to keep watching. When a movie takes its young viewers to an uneasy place where they don't feel on solid ground, and then takes them across that brink, they arrive at a special moment in their emotional lives where they can grow a little. It's a moment of surrender, when hearts open wide and we admit the new experiences we may need to remain emotionally, even spiritually, intact in an oftentimes cruel world. Simply stated, great stories can teach us to abide our troubles, and kids films are no exception.
My little girl gasped when that first rock hit the red balloon. It was becoming clear to her that Pascal would never get free to save it, that his balloon was doomed. I could see it was uncomfortable for her, but we kept watching it together, my finger poised on the stop button.
She let out a meek, deflating cry as the red balloon fell to the ground...
And then she remained still as she watched it "die."
Like her dad before her, she was feeling something very deeply, perhaps for the first time. I can’t say for sure what it was, but since we’re flesh and blood, I couldn't help feeling for a moment that we were somehow back in that church auditorium together, feeling the same thing.
When all the balloons of Paris come to Pascal's side at the very end, my daughter also had a similar reaction to mine almost 50 years ago, but this I know because she shared it with me. Not elation (the end-goal of many other kids films) but confusion. Why hadn’t they come sooner? Why hadn’t they saved the red balloon? The ending of this film, literally uplifting in its imagery, is not so uplifting in itself. It's melancholy, in fact.
But at the right age, it's unforgettable.
It took years for me to appreciate the gift of the Red Balloon to its boy Pascal and, by extension, to all younger viewers of the film. He’s gained (you guessed it) empathy. He’ll never again not notice the unique souls that enrich his life, or ever again take them for granted. More importantly, he'll feel their pain. And this hopefully extends to the ongoing generations of youngsters who see The Red Balloon for the first time, at just the right moment. The secret of The Red Balloon is meant to be absorbed as a youngster, but cherished as a grownup, and that's why it stays with you.
That’s what a film can do, and what Pixar seems to have absorbed from The Red Balloon directly into its storytelling DNA, with few exceptions. A great kids film takes its simple device and transmogrifies it into an experience that wakes up something inside us we had no idea was there.
It literally changes us.