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Every year, as Pixar, DreamWorks and Sony Pictures Animation are conquering the world with their animated blockbusters (from the likes of “Inside Out” to “Minions), the award-winning distributor GKIDS quietly releases the boldest and most mature international animated movies, often pushing them into Oscar dark horse contention. In 2010, it was the dazzling fantasy film “The Secret of Kells” and the Spanish music romance “Chico & Rita,” and titles such as “Ernest and Celestine,” “Song of the Sea” and “The Tale of the Princess Kaguya” were released to similar acclaim in the years following.
With just several weeks left in 2015, GKIDS is about to do it again this year with an experimental and extraordinary animated film: “Boy and the World.”
The second feature film from Brazilian writer-director Alê Abreu, “Boy and the World” is a vibrant animated odyssey centered around Cuca, a young boy whose safe rural life is thrown into disarray after his father leaves for the urban metropolis. His father’s departure inspires the boy to embark on his own journey to the city, and his travels bring him through the many physical and sonic landscapes of Brazil.
Molded from the country’s longstanding tradition of road movies that put a spotlight on the social and political context of Brazil, “Boy and the World” does so through memorable animation that also tracks the stark differences between the country and the city populaces. The movie may host a barrage of eye-popping abstract visuals and kaleidoscope colors, but its subconscious runs deep with adult socio-political, environmental and economic themes. For this reason, Abreu’s vision is startlingly mature for a genre whose survival often depends on its appeal towards children.
That’s not to say children won’t admire the film — quite the contrary, given its intricate hand-drawn style and imaginative landscapes — but it was always Abreu’s intention to bring adult sensibilities to this creation. Speaking to Indiewire about the film earlier this week, the director talked about how he has always preferred politically-minded animation over the routine family-oriented fare. When Abreu was 12 years old, he became obsessed with the 1972 French surrealist animated film “Fantastic Planet” from director René Laloux, a movie he credits as the turning point in figuring out what kind of filmmaker he wanted to be.
“It opened my eyes to a new kind of animation and storytelling,” he said of the film, which uses cutout stop-motion to tell the story of a world in which humans live on a planet dominated by giant aliens. Through animation, Laloux created a contemporary racial allegory, and it was this idea to fill such a universal genre with specific adult themes that stuck with Abreu. No wonder he also cites the politically-motivated Studio Ghibli films from Isao Takahata and Hayao Miyazaki as other influences on his work.
Similar to these classic entries in the animated genre, “Boy and the World” filters weighty themes and social experiences through childlike animation and wonder. “It’s a film about a Latin American director who grew up in the context and under the conditions that formed our country,” he explained of the movie.
“But the story itself is not autobiographical, there is nothing there about myself; it’s mainly a feeling about what’s going on with the world and not understanding it. We went through various dictatorships in Brazil for years, and it was very hard to grow up in this period in the 70s and the 80s and have personal expression. It’s about finding yourself in a world that wants to contain you or suppress you.”
Part of what makes the film and its themes so accessible is the way in which they take shape through the imaginative perspective of the young Cuca. The boy sees the world as a symphonic melody of bright and limitless colors and shapes, allowing Abreu to convey his themes in the most wonderful and visually expressive ways possible. What could’ve come across as heavy-handed and didactic instead becomes a powerful subtext through which all of the director’s choices can be explored. When Cuca finds himself in the forest, for instance, the trees and the animals become a musical orchestra, tying the bond between the natural world and the boy through sound and color. Conversely, the daily life on a farm he encounters has the symmetrical shapes and rigid organization of a machine, showing the repetitive grind the poor must endure just to make a living.
“The first thing that drew me to this little boy’s world was the little boy himself,” Abreu said. “Sometimes I think the director of this film was the little boy and not me at all. I think I was trying to see the world from the point of view of this little boy because even though the city is mechanical and strict and the country rural and poor, through a kids’ eyes anything has the ability to change. Children have faith that anything is possible, no matter how imposing their world might be. They teach us hope, and if anything is possible for them, than it has to be possible for us at any age to create not just a new world, but a better world, too.”
Abreu spent three years working on the film, and although he hand a handful of assistants to help him with the animation process, he is responsible for drawing all of the backgrounds and characters himself. About half of the film is handcrafted, while the other half was rendered digitally, but Abreu was always clear to his team that even when working digitally, maintaining the organic feel of hand-drawn animation was most important. Abreu wanted the final product not to feel like the animated movies we are familiar with here in the states. Instead of watching a screen in front of you, he wanted to create the simulation of watching a blank page, one where new figures and colors are constantly entering, leaving and changing in the frame.
“Although the film has a positive message, it was a very painful process trying to animate it and get to that message [laughs],” he said. “It was very hard work. We wanted the audience to experience a feeling in which they weren’t sitting in front of a blank paper that had limitless potential. To achieve this with the parts we rendered digitally, we would print the first draft of the digital design and put it on a lighting board. We’d copy the illustration onto another piece of paper and then scan the new drawings back to the computer and then use after effects and another kind of equipment to to help assist the movement part. Even the digital parts had to feel hand-drawn.”
The result is a film that looks and moves unlike any animated film this year. What begins as simple sticks and lines, particularly in the design of Cuca and his family, continues to grow bigger and brighter as the boy makes his way through the country and into the dazzlingly imagined city.
It also sounds like nothing else this year either. Abreu starts conceptualizing his films by listening to music, and that was no exception for “Boy and the World.” The director credits the band Sigur Ros and Brazilian musicians for helping him find the sonic design he wanted to achieve for the film. In many ways, both the ethereal hymns of the former and liveliness of the latter combine to make the movie what it is: A spirited coming-of-age journey with a meditative rumination on the role country plays in developing our character.
For Abreu, all of these unorthodox methods make the film a provocative outlier in the genre of animation. The director was well aware of the product he was creating, and he considers the indie mentality he used in bringing the project to life as an act of personal expression that equates him in some way to the movie itself.
“Because this was born from the political and the environmental issues, there was a chance for me not to follow the footsteps of the natural animation market. I was compelled to do this in the opposite way of what the animation market is doing right now and do this film in a very independent and even radical way. The way I made the film is itself a political message — a cry for freedom of expression, a break from the traditional and mainstream methods, a cry that this big industry makes us almost choke and there is a cry for liberty from this local, artistical potentials of animation. It was about the creative potential of animation.”
Cuca may not be Abreu, but their journeys have provided a rallying call for personal expression. After touring numerous festivals over the past year and winning northwards of 40 international awards, “Boy and the World” hits select U.S. theaters in Los Angeles and New York City today.