Four stars. Rated PG, for dramatic intensity
By Derrick Bang
This one sneaks up on you.
Brazil’s Academy Award nominee in the Animated Feature category is a dazzling, extremely personal and ultimately quite sobering allegory by writer/director Alê Abreu ... although, at first, it doesn’t seem that way.
The opening act is aggressively simplistic, the characters little more than stick figures placed against the sort of random, wildly colorful landscape that one would expect from a small child playing with crayons. Indeed, our young hero — Cuca — is a small child.
He’s introduced while enjoying the carefree playtime typical of innocent youngsters brought up in a cozy rural environment: darting through fields, and allowing his imagination to run riot in an opulent kaleidoscope of fanciful adventures (such as jumping high enough to land on the overhead clouds).
Cuca can be happy via the simple act of planting a seed, particularly when helped by his beloved parents.
The pacing is slow, the cacophonous, hand-drawn visuals unapologetically haphazard and weird. The apparent “story,” such as it is, unfolds without dialog ... or, at least, without dialog that matters. Brief and occasional conversations emerge as little more than unintelligible grunts and whistles, much like the “talking” in Britain’s Shaun the Sheep.
Instead of dialog, Cuca’s escapades unfold against a lyrical musical score by Ruben Feffer and Gustavo Kurlat: merely a hint of the rich, genre-blending melodies to come.
The alluring visuals and music notwithstanding, you’ll likely start to chafe, wondering if anything of consequence is coming. The answer is absolutely, but — at least initially — patience is required.
Matters turn a bit more serious one morning, as Cuca watches his father depart on an oddly metallic, centipede-esque train (the first hint that Abreu’s animation style won’t remain as minimalist as we might expect). The boy doesn’t understand why Dad is leaving, although we assume the latter is seeking work. But Cuca isn’t willing to wait behind, like his patient mother; he charges out of the house, determined to reunite his family.
And thus begins a journey that unfolds like a tapestry — deliberately — and becomes increasingly complicated and politically charged, just as Abreu’s animation style turns equally complex.
Cuca encounters a series of kind strangers, starting with an aging laborer who, accompanied by his faithful dog, trudges wearily each morning into cotton fields. The work is done by a tightly choreographed team of shrub-shaking stilt-walkers and lock-stepping cart pushers: an agrarian ballet that blossoms into a music-laden dance.
The boy’s next chaperone is another breed of day-laborer: one of the countless cogs who handles mind-numbingly repetitive tasks in the massive factory that transforms the cotton into yarn. After a typically back-breaking day, Cuca’s newest companion climbs the endless steps to his tiny dwelling in the enormous shantytown favela that exists alongside a wealthy cityscape, where gaily dressed inhabitants give not a thought to the sweat labor that keeps them clothed.
And, lest they do develop a social conscience, the city dwellers are kept distracted by bread and circuses: blaring TV ads and wildly popular sporting matches.
Abreu’s politics — and his increasingly pointed message — are starting to show. Fairy-tale charm fades against a grim and brutal message.
The cityscape animation becomes ever more complex: a garish blend of découpage streets and shop windows, and disturbingly sinister, animal-like machines. Order is maintained by a massive, black-garbed military presence, which parades the city streets accompanied by imposing weapons.
It’s the ultimate clash between village and city, hand-crafted and mechanized, poor and rich ... with the former eternally getting wholly, totally screwed.
The common herd’s only respite comes with music, whether generated by one man with a flute, or an entire neighborhood enjoying a spontaneous festival. The film’s score follows suit, delivering an energetic, high-spirited blend of pan-flute, samba and Brazilian hip-hop. Cuca delights in the melodic variety, as do we; this definitely is a film to be enjoyed on the big screen, in a theater with a superior surround sound system.
The boy sees — and even captures — these melodic notes as colorful puffs that float like cotton on the breeze: an oddly touching visualization of harmony and song.
Ultimately, though, even the soul-saving music is cruelly taken away, like the jobs that vanish as new, voraciously animalistic machines more efficiently replace the already poverty-stricken workers who’ve depended on such employment for survival. The climactic clash takes place as a metaphor: a massive, rainbow-hued, samba-fueled phoenix struggling to survive the attack of an ebony, equally large raven unleashed by the military march music.
By now our senses — and political sensibilities — are furiously assaulted. Abreu amplifies the horror with live-action inserts: the destruction of farmland, the rape of Brazil’s rain forests, the sewage-spewing encroachment of unchecked industry.
It’s a dystopian nightmare come to life ... all experienced through the eyes of a small boy who, inevitably, loses his innocence. A fleeting epilog is even more brutal, the allegory progressing full circle in a manner that suggests totalitarian control never will relent, and in fact will get even worse.
There’s little doubt that Abreu has an extremely dim view of post-industrial Brazil’s callous disregard for her poorer migrant and laborer citizens. Boy and the World is an incredibly powerful indictment ... and yet one that leaves us with a note of solace.
Music continues to soothe the heart and soul, and it can be made from by banging pots and pans, or turning cast-off junkyard detritus into oddly elaborate instruments. (One melodic gadget immediately reminded me of the percussive bicycle employed by composer Benoît Charest, in 2003’s The Triplets of Belleville.)
As long as we have music, we have hope ... and, perhaps, the means to escape a life of harsh, tedious drudgery.
I only wish this film were distributed better. Big-screen bookings have been scarce; Berkeley seems the closest venue to the Sacramento Valley. But — rest assured — it’s worth the drive.