When I babysat young children over the summer, I often gave them connect-the-dots workbooks. These activities take more forethought and precision than you might expect. Neglect or misappropriate connections between the dots, and by the time you’re finished and inspect the big picture, you have no idea what you’re looking at. Now, the two- and five-year-old whom I babysat often impressed me with their efforts to connect the dots and sometimes their accuracy as well. Unfortunately, the endeavor becomes less impressive the older you get, so I cannot let the trio of adult men (Gustavo Steinberg, “End of the Line,” Gabriel Bitar, “Cidade Cinza” and Andre Catoto, “Say I am Only Seventeen”) who directed “Tito and the Birds” off the hook.
In the opening sequence of their animated children’s film “Tito and the Birds,” they outline an ambitious, disparate set of dots to connect. First and most conventionally, given the genre, they establish the titular young character Tito’s (Pedro Henrique) family dynamics: an inventor father named Rufus (Matheus Nachtergaele, “City of God”) who Tito idolizes, and an overprotective mother Rosa (Denise Fraga, “Norma”). Then, of course, come the birds. The first invention of Rufus’s we see is a machine intended to interpret the language of birds, for, as Rufus impresses upon his son, birds have been watching out for mankind from the beginning. This machine also sets the story in motion one night when it malfunctions and injures Tito, and an indignant Rosa sends Rufus packing. A third point raised in “Tito,” perhaps more compelling than any other, is that of the role the media plays in fearmongering, articulated through Alaor Souza (Matheus Solano, “Amor á Vida”), a sensationalist TV personality who dominates characters’ screens throughout the film that ensues.
Family, fearmongering, birds. Birds save family from fearmongering? Maybe. These dots are tentatively linked in the opening sequence, but the connections become stretched and overwrought in due time, as well as undermined when they drop the ball on other points that arise along the way (the most notable example of which are class distinctions in the film, which are only ever addressed haphazardly). Most disappointing of all, this anti-fearmongering film scared me, on several counts.
The first count: they misrepresent fear. There is a fine line between exaggerating the visual dimension of concepts to appeal to children and oversimplifying complexities to make them more digestible for a particular audience. “Tito” consistently teeters on the brink of the latter. Intending to represent the debilitating, divisive effects of paranoia on society, the makers of “Tito and the Birds” render fear as an epidemic, highly contagious and with ghastly bodily consequences. In the process, they confound physical disability and psychological states in a troubling way. People with disabilities do not have a choice in the matter; consumers of media and the disciples of media pundits who abuse their platforms, on the other hand, do. This misleading message about disabilities may effectively scare children out of succumbing to fearmongering, but it’s at the expense of an oft-misrepresented population.
On the topic of scaring kids away from fear, there lies the second count: the visuals themselves. At first enticing for their novelty (a likely descendent of “Loving Vincent,” comprised largely of oil paintings in motion), the imagery in “Tito and the Birds” becomes overly saturated with the fear the protagonists of the film try to resist. I doubt the intended audience of children will have the same resolve as Tito when confronted with disturbing graphics, such as the Jabba the Hutt-esque, reverse metamorphosis those afflicted with the fear “outbreak” undergo.
The third count is all about the birds, for “Tito and the Birds” is a well-disguised but problematic portrayal of man’s relationship with the environment. “Tito” teems with modern technology; it would seem Rufus’s admonition to once more listen to the birds would beseech respect for nature in spite of the industrialized, digitized world. Unfortunately, in “Tito,” the birds get nothing in return for their wisdom. We might never get past exploitative model of our relationship with nature if we do not even have the gall to imagine a mutual relationship in a children’s film.
If I were still babysitting, we’d skip “Tito.” We would keep working on connecting the dots, and maybe we’d form an image of a bird. But maybe then we’d add a few dots and draw ourselves. Imagine what it would look like to have genuine respect for the natural world.