“Boy & the World,” an animated Brazilian film directed by Alê Abreu (“Garoto Cósmico”) and nominated for the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature, never lets you go. It’s one of those films with pacing so perfect, it’s impossible to look away. For an essentially silent film (the only lines of dialogue are few and far between, plus they’re reversed recorded Portuguese), that pacing is critical to keeping the story progressing.
In “Boy & the World,” we follow an unnamed protagonist, a young stick figure boy from the countryside whose father, pressured to work harder, one day boards a train to head for the capital. The boy immediately becomes distressed, seeing visions of his father, who then fades away, leaving the boy alone. In his rural home, the animation is simple, bare and childlike. Small doodles in wildly varying colors comprise the grass, houses and clothes. There, a five-tone folk melody plays consistently, a recurring musical cue for the untouched naturalism of his home and the melancholic memory of his father — a well-remembered and vacant part of his life.
Our protagonist summons the will to search for his father. Traveling far from his home, across the rural landscape, the boy traces his father’s path to the grand metropolis. Along the way, he gains a few companions who provide him with housing. In the city, the boy walks through the vice district, among rush hour traffic and overwhelming layers of advertising. Houses are stacked upon each other to form impractical, menacing towers.
In this futuristic world, where cities float in glass capsules in the sky and flying sailboats are a safe and practical method of transportation, anything seems possible. But, alas, it comes with a cost. This we can determine by the animation. In the cities, everything is processed, fake. Abreu uses magazine cutouts for objects instead of drawing them, like in the countryside. Even the news anchors and models have hair, lips, eyes cut out from magazines.
While the film’s visual effervescence is quite attractive, the story suffers from its format. Dialogue-free, hand-drawn films are dangerous; many of the characters look the same, and without dialogue as a reference for characters, a number of scenes immediately become confusing, especially when Abreu uses flashback and visions to convey ideas. Is this our protagonist as an older man or is this his friend? Minor questions like this bogs down the film.
Beyond its obvious coming of age message, “Boy & the World” is primarily an environmental parable. Environmental destruction is far from subtle; Abreu would prefer to animate in broad strokes than leave interpretation up to the viewer. One particular scene, a truly jarring and surprising sequence of environmental destruction, clearly demonstrates his intention. But that’s no hurdle for the film. This is a serious problem, especially for Abreu, a Brazilian who is undoubtedly wary of his nation’s destruction of the Amazon.
Abreu wears his influences on his animated shoulders. Channeling the fast-paced, music-focused animated shorts of Walt Disney, the stunning large-scale choreography of Busby Berkeley, and the dystopian metropolitan cityscapes of Fritz Lang, Abreu clearly has a wide appreciation for 1930s film. And it couldn’t be more relevant. For a story so deeply concerned about capitalist environmental destruction, Abreu turns to the 1930s, a decade in which artists had to confront economic turmoil through their art. “Boy & the World” is as much a pointed criticism of today’s environmental woes as Chaplin’s “Modern Times” was of the Depression. And, like Chaplin before him, Abreu keeps you on your toes, right until the very end. It doesn’t hurt that there’s a pretty view, too.