A simple, universal parable played out in boldly imaginative (though not particularly high-tech) design terms, Brazilian animator Ale Abreu’s second feature, “The Boy and the World,” is an enchanting visual treat. Though programmed mainly in family-film sections at the Seattle Film Festival and other events, the dialogue-free pic may be a bit abstract for children, and its primary appeal will likely be as a major event for adventuresome adult animation fans. GKids has picked up North American rights; other territories are likely to follow suit with niche theatrical, broadcast and download sales.
Starting out in the most elemental fashion possible, Ale presents his pint-sized hero — defined by stick-figure limbs, three hair tufts, a plain circular head, no mouth and slightly eerie black-slit eyes, like a Dio de los Muertos Charlie Brown — living happily in his parents’ hut against a countryside of basic crayon and chalk-style design. He’s young enough to be oblivious as yet, but clearly it’s a hard life hereabouts. That’s driven home when his beloved father leaves on a train, presumably in search of employment that can support his family, as farming no longer does.
Bewildered and inconsolable, the tyke impulsively toddles off in search of his missing dad. His adventures gradually grow darker, more urban and more visually elaborate: First he winds up at an agricultural workers’ camp (where he acquires a dog for some time), then, after perilous sea travel, a dispiriting factory. He follows the zombie-like workers back to the city, an ugly (but also very strikingly designed) clutter of slum housing, fascistic military-police oppression, and the pervasive mass distraction of empty TV and advertising messages. As at the camp, a kindly worker takes him in; his busking as a one-man-band on his days off provide one of many notes of stubborn human cheer under otherwise dehumanizing circumstances.
Accidentally whisked off amid an armada of tankers bearing shipping containers, our protag marvels at the contrast when he finds himself in the literally airborne city of a wealthy elite — the benefactors of an earthbound majority who are cogs in a machine at best, landfill scavengers at worst. The sociopolitical commentary reaches an explicit peak during a brief montage of live-action footage showing the devastation of our planet, while the film’s symbolism peaks with a fight between the rainbow-hued phoenix of the people and the black bird (at one point morphing into the Nazis’ black eagle emblem) of the oppressors.
Despite the remaining whiff of children’s-fable whimsy, good does not triumph, and instead of the happy-ending reunion we might still reasonably be holding out for, the film makes a leap into the future that’s wistfully bleak, while still allowing that hope springs eternal.
Even — or perhaps especially — during its most starkly downbeat depictions of global injustice, “The Boy and the World” is often visually dazzling. The techniques and styles utilized run a wide gamut, from modernist-art-style primitivism (a la Joan Miro, etc.) to busy incorporation of futurist imagery depicting a nightmarish maze of inhumane human “progress.” Beyond its sheer, intense variety and ingenuity, Abreu’s animation remains so appealing throughout because it always feels handmade — there’s no corporate studio sheen here, even if the lengthy closing credits list a substantial corps of tech and artistic collaborators.
While there’s no real dialogue per se, voice actors are deployed to speak expressive gibberish when needed. The flavorful score by Ruben Feffer and Gustavo Kurlat makes distinctive use of guest artists Nana Vasconcelos, Barbatuques (both providing vocals and percussion) and instrumental Grupo Esperimental de Musica (aka GEM).