Director: Alê Abreu

Genre: Animation

Cast: Vinicius Garcia, Felipe Zilse, Alê Abreu, Lu Horta, Marco Aurélio Campos

Brazilian filmmaker Alê Abreu’s Boy and the World (2013) comes to India more than two years after it played in the Half Ticket section of the Mumbai Film Festival (MAMI), but it really is a film for all time. It might be designed to represent the vibrant and violently colourful South American nation, but it really represents the universal concept of existence – of humanity, as well as the environments that try to categorize humanity. Time and again we’ve seen the movies wax eloquent about the unforgiving circularity of life and evolution; Boy and the World, though, is perhaps the purest and most inventive audiovisual manifestation of this thought. It is, for lack of a better term, the most optimistic tragedy I’ve ever seen. And heard. And, at some points, even lived through.

The film’s animation is hybrid: that is, part hand-drawn/colored and part digital. But its images are incredibly imaginative and evocative – almost as if a series of famous paintings from a generational stick-art museum were made to simulate motion through a kaleidoscopic flipbook. Its wordlessness has a chaotic sound to it – the few lines and signposts are actually Portuguese in reverse – one that signifies the futility of language in regions jammed with overlapping voices.

It starts, of course, as most stories usually do, with an emotion: a village boy, who sets out on a cinematic journey, in search of his city-bound father. He is both animated, and animated.

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All he has is a family photograph, and a tin can accommodating a glowing strand of music like a rare firefly. The man would often play this song on the flute for his son after a hard day in the field. After all, music is nothing more but an emotion – be it nostalgia, melancholy or youngness – equipped with the rhythm to be heard. If this 80-minute film had assumed the form of a short, it would be closer to Dutch animator Michaël Dudok de Wit’s Oscar-winning Father and Daughter (2000): an eight-minute story encapsulating a lifetime of love, longing and closure.

But Boy and the World occupies a medium that demands it go from boy to world – from emotion to spirit – which is why the single note of music then morphs into plural variations of carnival-samba anthems, fusion and hip-hop, subject to the political expression of the boy’s ever-changing surroundings. From being adopted by an ailing, old cotton-farm worker and his dog to shacking up with a tired young cotton-factory worker and musician in the big city, the impressionable boy becomes the lens through which we are exposed to his country’s vast social fabric. The puffy clouds he once played on are in fact preemptive of the exploitative cotton industry he, like his father and subsequent generations, is destined to occupy.

While the boy remains a two-haired stick figure with a ball-face, the hand-painted backgrounds of his childhood transform into complex and purposeful digital interpretations as he accidentally confronts the conformist visuals of adulthood. The older the people he meets, the more needlessly developed they look. When viewed through the eyes of a child, however, even the most unremarkable pictures and the most extreme ideologies acquire the playful abstractness of artful caricatures. The favela-infested hills of Rio appear as futuristically symmetrical twilight-zone cones, while the mechanical mundaneness of factories and fields look like perfect ant-patterns dancing to the tunes of modernization. Multicolored ponchos, parades and birds – symbols of freedom – wear the happiness of rainbows, while tanks and armies and rebellions bear the grainy greyness of contemporary consumerism.

Some of the visuals look almost biblical, like carefully textured, ancient scriptures into which a little kid has simply been penciled. He is both out of place and frightfully in sync. Animation in storytelling essentially thrives on creating entire worlds from scratch; here, we have a character in search of his own lost world, for who atmospheres seem to self-build themselves from scratch every time he looks in a new direction. The concept is delightfully simple – as if this film were made only for its protagonist to see deeper and further than he has ever seen before.

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Again, let me mention here that we have seen countless films overdo the quintessential road-movie adventure. The last ten minutes of Boy and the World, through a narrative sleight-of-hand trick, lend a beautifully perceptive relevance to this template. It paints time into its traditionally two-dimensional motif – making for a complete and wonderfully sad snapshot. For once, the adventure feels like more than an instrument to advertise innovative graphics and physical creativity. It feels necessary, and despite being bombarded by an overload of adult themes in children’s language, it feels intimate. It remains considerably brilliant that Abreu somehow manages to pass a scathing critique of society, classism and civilization by integrating it – aesthetically and messily – into the private mindscape of a drifting boy.

There is a singularity to the boy’s otherwise-generic journey that becomes apparent in the final moments. The resulting feeling is both humbling and lyrical – we might have known it all along, but failed to acknowledge it – driving home the heft and magic realism of Dudok de Wit’s 2016 feature, The Red Turtle.

In that, the turtle turns into a pretty woman that spends her life with a shipwrecked man until he grows old and dies; and then she goes back to sea. Was he crazy and alone all along? Did he really live, love and perish? Boy and the World, too, ends with a lonely emotion – that of life happening to the boy while he was busy occupying our film.

 

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