Handcrafted artworks bear the imprint of their creator’s imagination in a way that can’t be replicated mechanically in an attempt to automatize creativity. Like a source of imperfect magic, the human element injects lively authenticity into the process. Such quality can’t be substituted by the artificiality of products assembled solely from the intangible numeric codes of advanced machinery. Nowhere in the cinematic landscape is this move away from unique individuality and into smooth homogeneity more concerning than in animation: a medium that has fallen prey to studio-friendly storytelling and uniformly rendered design patterns.
What might be unexpected for some is that the latest film to step away from those trends and that graciously shows audiences and industry experts why idiosyncratic, stylistically inventive, thematically complex, and non-franchise work is remarkably necessary, is an animated feature from Brazil, which was made outside of any profit-driven production parameters and proudly standing as the product of an independent auteur’s perseverance.
Alê Abreu’s “Boy and the World” is unequivocally the best animated film of the year. Drawn with the finest ends of an artist’s heartstrings and painted with the colorful essence of undefeatable hope, Abreu’s utterly lyrical, visually captivating, musically driven, and extraordinarily sophisticated treasure is the animated equivalent of a childhood dream that thrives on sweet innocence and the pure ability to see the world truthfully for its dazzling beauty and its man-made dangers. As it continues to spellbind the globe with its unconventional artistry and thought-provoking observations, an Oscar nomination would be a more than deserved crown jewel.
Opening with a kaleidoscopic vision, “Boy and the World” instantly sets in motion a dynamic introduction to Cuca, the boy, and his fascinating surroundings. From those very first frames it’s clear we are dealing with moving illustrations where the hand of the wizard makes its presence visible in the use of crayons, color pencils, cutouts, oil paint, and everything in between. The strokes, the lines, and the natural textures of each technique give us the sense that we are witnessing a marvelous coloring book come to life via unimaginably fluid choreography. It just doesn’t get any more palpable and real than that. The ways Abreu takes hand-drawn animation to new and unexplored heights only escalate in amazement as the plot thickens.
With a seemingly simple appearance, Cuca is a charming little character. His thin extremities, a striped shirt, and roughly sketched facial features that are heartwarmingly expressive, make for a perfectly unassuming protagonist to embark on a fantastic adventure with. Tirelessly receptive to wonder and possibility, Cuca lives in the countryside with his parents and not unlike most boys his age he enjoys climbing on tress and exploring nature. Yet, if there something Cuca loves more than anything else is to listen to his father play a joyous melody on the flute. This wondrous tune embodies cherished memories, and since in Cuca’s world music manifests itself physically as radiant floating spheres, the adorable hero decides to save one of these as his most valued possession.
But despite its tranquil pace and gorgeous sunsets, the pastoral lifestyle becomes increasingly difficult for Cuca’s father who is trying to support the family by farming the land. Pushed by the circumstances dad must travel elsewhere to find work, a decision that inevitably breaks Cuca’s heart. Mom does her best to console him, but eventually Cuca grabs his suitcase, packs a single item – a family photo – and ventures into the great unknown in search of his hardworking father. Following a bumpy ride the boy meets an elderly man whose dreams and happiness seem to have been ripped from soul by hardships. Soon Cuca sees what troubles the man firsthand. Elderly people working in agriculture at a larger scale and being discarded when their bodies are too fragile to keep up with the industrial demands
Weaved into the film’s evocative imagery, Abreu tackles the impeding threat of a system wishing to replace human involvement for more efficient practices to maximize financial gain, a concern that mirrors the fact that traditional animation is now the anomaly in the face of more cost-effective and less time-consuming methods. However, as Cuca continues on his enthralling voyage we are shown time and time again that craftsmanship led by an emotional connection to the work is always far superior in terms of its gravitas. In a different corner of this world Cuca encounters a young man who spends his days laboring in the textile industry, while secretly manufacturing a rainbow-colored poncho for his sidewalk musical performance. Living in a working-class neighborhood, which undeniably resembles the well-known favelas, can’t break the spirit of the talented musician.
Of course, the corporate machine has other plans, and finds a high-tech way to mass-produce their good leaving people without a job. The dangers of consumerism and the voracious nature of so-called progress are evident in how Abreu depicts the false glimmer of a cosmopolitan city of the rich and the dismal poverty around it. It’s admirable how “Boy and the World” delivers a powerful message against social injustice in a totally cinematic fashion and a million times more effectively that any tiresome speech. It’s activism from the heart through ingenious portrayals of these evils of the modern world, their perpetrators, and their victims. But let’s be clear, even though “Boy and the World” deals with intellectually complex topics, it’s never less entertaining and enjoyable because of it. What’s even more important is that it’s never preachy in its approach.
Tied in with the segments that delve into inequality and greed, Cuca’s dreamy experience also explores environmental concerns and the reckless exploitation of natural resources to satisfy our inessential desire to consume. This subject has even more important connotations in Brazil, which one of the countries most affected by deforestation. Clearly preoccupied by the horrendous repercussions of these activities, Abreu makes an unshakable point. For a brief moment the animated universe gives in to real life footage of destruction in what becomes a hauntingly poignant sequence within this flawless film.
Astoundingly, all of the film’s profound and intricate ideas are communicated without a single line of dialogue. True, occasionally we hear some of the characters speak, but their lines are in a fictional language created by forming phrases with Portuguese words written backwards. Even the lyrics to the samba-infused song “Airgela,” which is the soul of the film, were created by using this system. “Airgela” is “Alegria” written in reverse and it means happiness in both Portuguese and Spanish. Similarly any signs or billboards seen on throughout Cuca’s adventures employ the same rule. Details like this demonstrate the universality of “Boy and the World” and the filmmaker’s painstakingly genius thought process to invent a visual story where every minuscule element has its purpose.
Astoundingly, all of the film’s profound and intricate ideas are communicated without a single line of dialogue. True, occasionally we hear some of the characters speak, but their lines are in a fictional language created by forming phrases with Portuguese words written backwards. Even the lyrics to the samba-infused song “Airgela,” which is the soul of the film, were created by using this system. “Airgela” is “Alegria” written in reverse and it means happiness in both Portuguese and Spanish. Similarly any signs or billboards seen on throughout Cuca’s adventures employ the same rule.
Music is strongest of shields against oppression in Abreu’s perfect film and undoubtedly one of its most memorable attributes. When the cheerful song of a united people literally takes flight to fight its tyrant, we become aware of how vulnerable we are, but also that every new generation represents a new hope for change. Details like this demonstrate the universality of “Boy and the World” and the filmmaker’s painstakingly genius thought process to invent a visual story where every minuscule element has its purpose.
Once Cuca brings us back to where it all started, Abreu still has one delicate final twist that confronts us with the things we left behind in a simpler past, our unfulfilled dreams lost in the notion of what we thought our lives would be, and those endearing memories that keep us going. “Boy and the World” is a multicolored tapestry of endless ambition that stimulates our intellect and embraces our hearts. To say I loved this film would be a blatant understatement, Just like Cuca treasures his beloved father’s song as a keepsake for future inspiration, I will dearly hold “Boy and the World” among a select group of timeless delights that won’t ever fail to make me smile.