A deceptively simple drawing style is put at the service of a stern rebuke about brutal socio-economic realities in the developing world by Brazilian filmmaker Ale Abreu in his essentially wordless film, one of this year’s Oscar nominees for best animated feature. Even those who find fault with its core message will have to admit that “Boy and the World” is a visually dazzling experience, although it might appeal more to adult connoisseurs of animation technique than to kids in the same way last year’s “Song of the Sea” did. The buoyant score by Ruben Feffer and Gustavo Kurlat adds enormously to the effect, too.
The film portrays the impact of industrialization on rural areas and local tradition from the perspective of a child, a young boy drawn essentially in stick-figure form, but with certain features—like his eyes and rosy cheeks—accentuated. His life is totally centered on the hut at the edge of a forest where he dotes on his mother and his father, a thin fellow who pipes a cheeky tune on his flute.
For the boy all is idyllic, as he gambols about the fields and streams, checking out the animals and fauna and imagining himself floating above the landscape. But things are financially tough for the family, forcing the father to pack a suitcase and take the nearby train to the city to search for work.
The lad, pining after his father, soon follows him into the unknown, arriving first at a camp for migrant workers in the cotton fields, witnessing how the less able-bodied are overlooked by foremen but also enjoying the excitement of a harvest festival, and then making his way by sea to the city, where goose-stepping troops and tanks fill the streets and workers toil in a textile mill run by black-suited money men before repairing to their grim slum dwellings. (At one point a montage of live-action footage interrupts the animation to show the reality being depicted in the art, with the environmental degradation it involves.) Still the boy is shown kindness by a laborer who also performs as a one-man band on his off hours—an oasis of cheer in the drabness.
The boy is then accidentally carried off to cities of the wealthy that literally float in the air, where the cloth produced below is transformed into expensive garments that are then hawked in streams of colorful advertisements. The juxtaposition of wealth and poverty is symbolized in the contrast between a multi-colored phoenix representing freedom and the crow of oppression, whose blackness threatens to drain the hues from it. A final reunion adds a hopeful note that the old ways of life might be able to survive after all, though not in the Pollyanna fashion one might anticipate.
There’s not much doubt about the message that Abreu is delivering here—a warning about the dangers of industrialization and the globalization of the economy that inevitably endanger cultural practices that have endured for centuries. But by presenting it from the perspective of a child encountering the threats to the traditional life he loves—and only partially comprehending what he sees (even the snatches of conversation are recorded in reverse, turned into a gibberish comparable to the trombone warbling of the adults in the animated “Peanuts” programs)—makes it feel less heavy-handed.
And the artwork–by turns impressionistic and kaleidoscopic, vibrantly colorful and darkly nourish, using pencil, crayon, watercolor and cut-outs—renders the boy’s adventures in eye-popping form. Whether the narrative is interpreted as having a whiff of reality about it or as the kid’s sheer fancy (after all, this is a lad who climbs into the clouds) is immaterial. What counts is that either way, it offered Abreu and his colleagues the opportunity to fashion a series of imaginative tableaux that have stunning visual impact, whether you agree with the message they’re promoting or not.