IT is everywhere. The horror film, based on a Stephen King novel, has captured the public’s imagination in a way that few films manage to.
A big part of this has been the use of Pennywise – a creepy clown with a big, cracking white forehead and haunting grin – in the film’s promotion. I, for one, have not been able to go a few hours without seeing or hearing reference to him. Help.
Along with Pennywise – or in place of him – IT has also been promoted with the image of a red balloon. As the film’s protagonists are kids, the balloon acts as a symbol of corrupted childhood and a menacing method of luring – with obvious paedophilic connotations.
Yet the balloon’s purpose can be less sinister on the big-screen. They can signal hope, buoyancy, excitement and, in contrast to IT, untainted innocence.
Just think of Pixar’s UP – another two letter title film albeit with an altogether different emotional core. Following the passing of his wife, 78-year-old Carl ties thousands of balloons to his home and heads off to South America. The slew of balloons uproot his home and – pivotally – allow him to carry his past with him on this journey. Little does Carl know that a young boy scout is accidently coming on the trip with him.
Multiple balloons are attached to Thomas’ dog at a wild house party in comedy Project X (2012). Thomas is particularly unimpressed and immediately pulls his floating dog back down to the ground.
Animals and balloons also mix in DreamWorks’ 2001 smash-hit Shrek. After a rough start to their relationship, romance begins to blossom between Shrek (Mike Myers) and Princess Fiona (Cameron Diaz) en-route to Lord Farquaad.
This bonding is displayed in a montage to the sounds of ‘My Beloved Monster’ by Eels. During this scene, Shrek pounces on a frog and blows it up like a balloon. A tickled Fiona picks up a snake, blows it up and, like a balloon animal, folds it into a poodle. The two laughingly run off as their makeshift balloons float into the sky. The grumpy ogore and the stuck-up princess are starting to lower their guards.
Balloon animals are also on show in The Mask (1994). Our mischievous, green-masked hero (played by Jim Carrey) distracts a group of thugs with some nifty balloon work before manufacturing a Tommy gun to scare them off.
In 2016’s Ghostbusters reboot, a big parade of haunted balloons attack our protagonists. ‘Let’s pop some balloons,’ says Abby (Melissa McCarthy). They do exactly that until familiar face, Stay Puft Marshmallow Man, falls flat on the Ghostbusters’ crew, threatening to squish them. Only the returning Erin (Kristen Wiig) can return to save the team from this possessed balloon.
Balloons being popped – or let down – has long been a way to draw laughter or a smile from audiences. In The Great Dictator (1940), Charlie Chaplin plays a satirical version of Adolf Hitler named Adenoid Hynkel. In one scene, Hynkel kicks around a globe shaped balloon in his office – this world domination business is all just a game to him.
That is until the globe eventually blows up in his face – an ample reminder of the world’s precarious future, at least in this dictator’s hands.
In Vivre Sa Vie (1962) and Pee-wee’s Big Holiday (2016) – two drastically different films – characters entertain their respective audiences with deflating balloons or imitations of such. Similarly, Johnny Depp’s character in Benny and Joon (1993) takes a break from making-out with Joon to let air out of a balloon in impressively smoothing fashion. Balloons for entertainment.
Spoilt-brat Violet inflates like a balloon after chewing on a forbidden piece of three-course meal gum in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971). Wonka (Gene Wilder) is particularly unsympathetic as the youngster is rolled out of the room by Oompa Loompas.
Bruce (James McAvoy) is equally unimpressed in the opening of Filth (2013) when a young kid, holding a yellow smiley-face balloon, gives him the finger. A ever-grouchy Bruce takes the balloon, releases it into the air and shoots his two middle fingers back at the crying child.
In Police Academy 4: Citizens on Patrol (1987), The Layover (2017) and The Ugly Truth (2009) hot air balloons become the setting for comedic and disastrous moments. All of which end with the balloon hurtling to the ground – or those inside wishing it were.
Around the World in 80 Days (1957), an adaptation of Jules Verne’s novel, sees Phileas Fogg (David Niven) soar high above the beautiful British countryside as he sets off on his ambitious adventure. Hot air balloons are a means for escape in Night Crossing (1982) and The Wizard of Oz (1939). Unfortunately for Dorothy (Judy Garland), the Wizard’s balloon takes off without her, leaving her stranded in Oz.
An hot air balloon mysteriously – and fatally – landing in the middle of a field opens Roger Mitchell’s Enduring Love (2004) – based on Ian McEwan’s book. The tragic incident – and the death it causes – has a profound effect on science professor Joe (Daniel Craig), who spends the rest of the film wrestling with this memory.
Balloons are also tied to darker moments in Fritz Lang’s M (1931), J Lee Thompson’s The Yellow Balloon (1953) and M Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense (1999). Tellingly, each of these scenes are linked to children. The balloon, here, marks a loss of or endangered innocence – not too dissimilar from IT.
On a lighter note, a multitude of balloons light up the party in The Virgin Suicides (1999), The Witches of Eastwick (1987) and Patch Adams (1998). More modestly, only one ‘congratulations’ balloon is needed for Adam (Ashton Kutcher) to try to reconnect with close friend Emma (Natalie Portman) after a night of passion in No Strings Attached (2011).
The most iconic example of a balloon on film comes in Albert Lamorisse’s stunning The Red Balloon (1956). The film follows a young boy as he walks through a Parisian neighbourhood with a sentient balloon. Its bright, popping colour against the decaying streets makes for a stark visual.
This is a visual paid tribute to in Hou Hsiao-hsien’s highly-acclaimed film Flight of the Red Balloon (2007) and, more recently, in the final scenes of Damien Chazelle’s La La Land.
La La Land also pays homage to Stanley Donen’s Funny Face (1957). One memorable scene from the dazzlingly designed Funny Face sees bookkeeper turned model Jo (Audrey Hepburn) being photographed by Dick (Fred Astaire) in front of the Eiffel Tower.
Jo holds a bunch of colourful balloons – perhaps indicating her child-like vulnerability in this unfamiliar role. She has no clue what she is supposed to be doing until Dick reassures her to be happy and let go. She does, and it makes for a wonderful photograph.
When you see an advertisement for IT this week, remember that the balloon has been given many purposes in film, from laughter to romance and terror. Just know it is not always your enemy.
Thank you for reading. Please like, share and comment!