by Miguel E. Rodriguez
DIRECTOR: Alê Abreu
CAST: Vinicius Garcia, Alê Abreu, Lu Horta
MY RATING: 10/10
ROTTEN TOMATOMETER: 93% Certified Fresh
PLOT: A little boy goes on an adventurous quest in search of his father.
Filmmaker Brad Bird, the mind behind The Iron Giant, Ratatouille, and The Incredibles, once said something that occurred to me multiple times while I was watching the Brazilian animated film, Boy and the World.
“…animation is not a genre. And people keep saying, ‘The animation genre.’ It’s not a genre! A Western is a genre! Animation is an art form, and it can do any genre. You know, it can do a detective film, a cowboy film, a horror film, an R-rated film, or a kids’ fairy tale. But it doesn’t do one thing.”
Boy and the World proves Bird’s statement correct by delivering a succinct, poignant film, virtually without words, that defies classification. Is it a kids’ film? It’s colorful, vibrant, and contains no long words, but it was rated PG in America. Is it a “grown-up” film? There is absolutely some thematic material that might require some parental explanation, but the style of the film’s images is almost like a children’s book come to life. Boy and the World is quite unique in animation, at least in the animated films I’ve seen. The only film I might possibly compare it to is Walt Disney’s Fantasia…or more accurately, I’d say Boy and the World was inspired by Fantasia’s core concept. It’s a fairy tale and a cautionary tale and a coming-of-age story and a visual tour-de-force all in one.
We first meet the titular Boy in this story as he seems to be hearing music coming from under a colorful rock in a field. The Boy is never named. Indeed, what little dialogue we ever hear in the movie is conveyed either by grunts and coughs and harrumphs, or by a peculiar, unrecognizable language. I turned on the Blu-ray’s subtitles, and it only said “SPEAKING FOREIGN LANGUAGE.” But the film’s story is so well-constructed, a literal understanding of their speech is never necessary. (Trivia note: I learn from the disc’s special features that the language we hear is Portuguese…spoken backwards.)
The Boy lives with his mother and father in a humble dwelling in the Brazilian countryside during an unspecified time period, though his clothing indicates something close to present day. One day, his father simply decides to leave, boards a train, and is gone. We are not given a clear reason for his departure. The Boy is distraught, so one night he packs a suitcase (its only contents: a photo of him with his mother and father) and sets off to find him…
From there, the movie becomes an absolute visual feast. I do not wish to give further plot details – and there IS a surprisingly compelling plot – but I do want to give some idea of the startling originality on display during the film.
- The Boy has a unique ability that no one else in this world seems to have: he can see music. Whenever his mother hums a tune, or his father (in flashback) plays a song on a recorder, the Boy sees the music appear in the air as little balls of color, like cotton balls or tiny clouds. Later, he watches a parade go down a street, and the music clouds rise and swirl together in the sky, forming a huge multicolored bird. Later still, a military formation marches down another street. The boy sees that music as blacks and greys, and the bird it forms in the sky is far more imposing and ominous.
- Nothing in the film is a literal representation of what it’s depicting. For example, when the Boy sees a big city for the first time, most of the vehicles appear to have faces. The language on all the ads and billboards doesn’t make any sense. The sports he sees on the TV sets in the shop windows are confusing and nonsensical. It is more like an impression a child might have of a big city, and it feels more real because of its stylistic liberties. When he sees large industrial machines in operation for the first time, they look more like elephants and dragons than tow trucks and construction cranes. This is something animation can do better than any other medium.
- There is a heartbreaking scene when the Boy sees a train pull in at a station and sees his father step out. The Boy runs forward…and then his father steps out of another car. And another, and another. And soon the platform is crowded with scores of men, all identical to the Boy’s father, and the Boy falls to his knees in frustration. I interpreted this as an eloquent analogy of how anyone in the Boy’s situation might see a recognizable figure in the distance, only to be disappointed again and again. Instead of it happening 15 or 20 times in the movie, we got it all at once, and it was an unexpectedly powerful moment.
- Listen closely, and you’ll hear that a lot of sound effects, from birds in the jungle to car horns honking to clattering machinery, are made by musical instruments or the human voice and/or body. Yet another unique element to an already unique film.
- The resolution of the boy’s search took me completely by surprise. There were little visual clues that had me believing the movie was not going to have a happy ending. But then it unfolded, and the effect was eye-opening. I won’t say one way or the other if he found his father or not, but I will say the ending felt earned, authentic, and very satisfying.
All told, Boy and the World is a marvelous little discovery, one that I plan to re-watch soon to drink in its marvelous visual concoction once more. My colleague, Marc, is a playwright who once wrote a short play as a pantomime. He believed (and still does, I think) that the main purpose of the visual arts is to show us something new and exciting whenever possible. Boy and the World would be right up his alley.