As Brazil falls heedlessly into far-right political clutches, the liberal message of Gustavo Steinberg, Gabriel Bitar and André Catoto’s ravishing animated feature “Tito and the Birds” turns out to be more unhappily timely than its makers would have hoped: Put simply, a society gripped by fear will never take flight. If the boy-against-the-world allegory carrying this moral is painted with a broad brush, so — often quite literally — is the film itself. Employing a darkly iridescent fusion of oil paint and digital embellishment, it renders a growing dystopia in shifting, seasick colors, distorted into about as much exquisite, Expressionist-inspired nightmare fuel as its family-film remit will allow.
A classy acquisition for newbie distributors Shout! Studios, this Annecy and Toronto premiere is among the 25 titles submitted in this year’s animated feature Oscar race. Comparisons to fellow Brazilian dazzler “Boy and the World,” a surprise 2015 nominee, are both obvious and merited, particularly with regard to both films’ use of striking, mixed-media animation to realise an amorphous, serious-minded blend of real and fantasy worlds. The overtly painterly effect here will put many toon buffs in mind of last year’s van Gogh homage “Loving Vincent,” but the aesthetic conjured by art directors Vitar and Vini Wolf is entirely its own creation, fluidly rotating from shadowed urban claustrophobia to blazing kaleidoscopic hellscapes, with secondary forms and backdrops flickering and shape-shifting like flames.
The characters change form too, though that’s at the command of the narrative — an element rather more sketchily developed than the vibrant, still-wet-on-the-screen visuals. With its general spirit of sweetly naive fabulism, the film just about gets away with various missing details and logical leaps, though slightly expanding the tight, lively 73-minute runtime could have smoothed certain creases in the storytelling.
The central premise is appealingly outlandish: Tito, a bright, inventive 10-year-old schoolboy (voiced by Pedro Henrique), develops an elaborate rattletrap machine to help humans translate the language of birds, an ability our race has supposedly lost over millennia. In doing so, he continues the life’s work of his father Rufus (Matheus Nachtergaele), a scientist exiled from the family ever since a botched experiment with an earlier model severely injured the boy. The accident has left his mother Rosa (Denise Fraga) anxious and over-protective — a typical victim, then, of a viral epidemic of fear sweeping the population, the most chronic cases of which cause patients to shrink into mute, immobile lumps of quasi-human rock.
The contagion is exploited, meanwhile, by Alaor Souza (Matheus Solano), a rightist TV personality whose dubious state-of-the-nation reports on crime and security stoke paranoia among millions, driving them to buy into the disease-free Dome Garden, a hi-tech, sealed-off luxury estate owned — surprise, surprise — by Souza himself. No cure for the contagious climate of fear is in sight, though Tito believes he has the answer, and it lies in hearing what the doves are telling us. Little sense is made of that particular revelation, either metaphorically or within the film’s warped universe, as it barrels toward a busy, chase-heavy finale.
Notwithstanding such flights of fancy and pigeon fanciers, however, this is an unusually candid political allegory for young audiences, tapping into the dangers of fake news, propaganda and social separatism that have granted power to extremist right-wing leaders from Bolsonaro to Trump. At the very least, small fry will leave with the universally palatable takeaway that fear is anathema to freedom, with Tito and his feisty best friend Sara presented as emblematic of a younger, bolder, more open-minded generation. One wishes the script, by co-director Steinberg and Eduardo Benaim, colored in their personalities and relationship beyond just their mutually plucky virtues, but they’re an endearing team anyway, elementally but effectively characterized by the animation team with wide eyes and crinkly worry lines.
Even at the story’s thinnest points, the restless imagery is constantly absorbing and picture-book vivid. Atmospheric slabs of urban architecture and surges of fevered crowd movement are evoked with single, stylized flicks of a brush, with a saturated palette that switches as temperamentally as a mood ring: from the livid frog-green fumigation smoke wielded by Souza’s minions to the coruscating amber that the film repeatedly identifies with youth and hope. Standing up to the visuals with equal muscle is a tremendous, Zimmer-esque score by Ruben Feffer and Gustavo Kurlat — also vital contributors to “Boy and the World” — whose clattering, dissonant merging of orchestral and rumbling synthetic elements ensures that fear will not be defeated quietly.