Is happiness influenced by environment? Can merely being born in a certain place at a certain time determine for life our chances of living out a fulfilling existence? Is class bound always to create an invisible barrier between haves and have-nots, or can we change the unspoken rules of ‘the system’ through determination and numbers? You wouldn’t expect questions like these to be raised by Brazilian storybook animation The Boy and the World, at least not from the colorful, vibrant initial act. But as the film progresses, and as the titular ‘boy’ learns about The Way Things Are on an impromptu trip from his family farm to the big city, The Boy and the World grows in stature.
The boy is witness on his journey to the worst of Brazil today, a Brazil of social unrest and economic disparity. Unchecked capitalism means that the cotton pickers, whom the boy follows in fascination from field to factory in a kind of accidental odyssey, are poor and dressed in rags as they collect snow-white material from morning to night, while the men at the top live in luxury. It’s clear from the offset how much care has been invested into having us live via this small child as he sees this other world for the first time. We view the country through his eyes, so atmospheres flip-flop with his emotions, the mood palpably changing with sudden revelations or the recollection of a memory.
It could be argued that no medium can depict childhood, with all its messiness and flights of fancy, as truthfully as animation, and The Boy and the World takes full of advantage of animation’s ability to seamlessly segue from fantasy to reality and back again. It’s on a par with Studio Ghibli in reminding you of the limitless potential of the cartoon, and of its emotional power.
The boy’s father has recently left home, presumably to find work in order to better provide for his wife and child; as the boy searches for his father in one of Brazil’s major cities, he remembers moments he once shared with his now absent parent. He sees dad playing the flute at sunset – the orange glow framing his father as a mythical figure – while anxiously trying to capture dad’s tune in a tin (music here is represented by tiny clouds of varying color emanating from the instrument).
In a rapid switch, director Ale Abreu can move you from a sense of adventure found in exploring what he sees as the corrupt industrial heart of Brazil, to a heavy sense of loss as the young boy recalls treasured childhood memories never to be repeated. It’s a wistful, emotionally intelligent film that’s also beautifully rendered, a rainbow-colored pastel drawing that rarely looks anything other than affectionately homemade. And the apparent confidence of Abreu means that what he and his team have made stands on its own as a purely visual piece of cinema.
What are viewed in the film as the twin evils of government and corporate power are represented by a twisted steampunk aesthetic, with armed guards monstrous, faceless and grey, accompanied by domesticated wildlife transformed into giant weapons of war and industry (an elephant becomes a tank, with its trunk a cannon, while giraffes operate as dockyard cranes). The film makes no secret of who it’s cast as the villains. The cotton pickers toil all day long, while the plantation owner arrives to oversee his minions in a spaceship-supercar, and gives what appears to be a Nazi salute. There’s no subtlety when it comes to depicting the antagonists, who use a Third Reich-aping eagle motif as their battle emblem), leaving the film feeling polemical whenever they’re on screen.
This anger towards the powers that be occasionally drowns out the compassion Abreu feels towards the downtrodden masses. And yet you have to admire the director for trying to mingle Little Big Planet-style animation with a deeply serious message, then pulling it off with surprising success. And downbeat moments aside (the city protest for peoples’ rights that the boy witnesses midway through the film ends sourly, while a late-on character revelation offers a tragic reminder of how time can stamp out the potential of even the most creative of souls), the film is really about retaining faith in people power, and the renewed promise found in new generations. It’s a tribute to the young that makes a promise of hope for the subjugated peoples of the world today.
Though it can be blunt, the beautifully-rendered coloring book animation of The Boy and the World gels so well with its more adult themes that any flaws are largely forgotten.