When you’re young, very young, the world is bright and bold, a riot of colour and creatures and moments tumbling one to the next. Boy and the World, a newly released animated feature from Brazilian director Alê Abreu, captures that vibrant fleeting spirit magnificently. From its opening moments, the film is a superb experiment in marrying image and soundtrack, a lovely kaleidoscopic zooming outward as a jaunty flute melody builds. We’re plunged into the world of Boy, our nameless protagonist playing in the pastoral rainbow-scape of rural Brazil. His journey from there to the big city brims with revelatory moments, dragging in its wake a stinging indictment of global capitalism.
Entirely without recognizable dialogue, the film follows Boy playing in the isolation of home, chasing animals, being called in for dinner by his mother. His father has to leave for work, and takes the train far away. Bereft, the boy decides to embark on his own journey in search of his father. He packs a bag with nothing but a flimsy photo of himself with his family, and heads to the lonely train depot as storm clouds roil.
His trip will take him first to the hard-working migrant workers, picking cotton in the fields, and from there to the city where a factory processes the cotton into thread and material. Ever forward, he finds himself sprinting over shipping containers on the freighters at the docks, and ends up transported to the wondrous metropolis where all that has been made before is consumed. Each place is distinct, and there are many beautiful rhythms, the cotton-pickers on stilts looking like a mosaic of agrarian activity, or the tangled web of the weavers processing cotton. Slowly and subtly, though, capitalism’s darker side asserts itself. The supervisor of the migrant workers hems and haws as he judges a line of people, tossing aside those unfit for the work. The factory owner is impressed by the arrival of a team of Germanic engineers, pushing a new production technology that will eliminate the labourers.
Boy is continually aided on his journeys, from an elderly coughing migrant worker to a bohemian factory worker and musician in the city. Each vignette illustrates simple acts of caring among underdogs, as the structural weight of society gets heavier. The old man feeds the boy, taking him in after the storm. The bohemian lets Boy ride his bicycle, and plays music in the marketplace. Boy keeps looking but he fails to find his father, instead stumbling across countless men who resemble his father but aren’t, a stream of identical workers emerging from a train. The billboard ads in the mountainous metropolis scream affluence and the cultivated ignorance of what makes such abundance possible. The allegory grows more heavy-handed as the military flexes its muscles, parading tanks and troops in the streets. A glorious dancing protest outside the city is put down by the army, as a rainbow phoenix does battle with a fierce black eagle in the sky above.
Boy’s adventures are fascinating, beautifully illustrated with pencil crayons and pastels, the simple stick-figure style evoking a child’s own art. The music telegraphs the emotions of each moment perfectly, from the simple call and response of the flute in the country to haunted Brazilian hip-hop in the city. The stinging rebuke of global capitalism is simplistic but effectively illustrates the toll progress takes, and the ugliness of fascist wealth. It’s easy to take Boy and the World as a beautifully rendered fable. Most interestingly, as the film draws to a close and Boy returns home, elements from his journeys recur, the bohemian’s hat and the elderly labourer’s shirt. Perhaps these people that helped Boy are himself in some way, his journey a trip through time, working and bending to the pressures of his country’s burgeoning economy. Abreu originally conceived the project as a documentary about Brazil’s history, and perhaps that deeper allegory underpins all we see. Either way, it’s an exceptional experience, great for kids with plenty for adults to chew on on the long ride home.
Boy and the World debuts at in Toronto at the TIFF Bell Lightbox on Friday, January 22nd, with screenings at 12:30pm and 6:00pm, and will continue through the week. For more info, see here.