'The Boy and the World' ('O Menino e o mundo'): Provincetown Review

Boy and the World Film Still - H 2014
Courtesy of Provincetown

Boy and the World Film Still - H 2014

This kaleidoscopic reflection on the losses of relentless economic growth carries the proud stamp of hand-tooled craftsmanship.

Ale Abreu's vibrant animated vision of a dehumanizing world seen through the eyes of a child has been acquired for U.S. distribution by GKids.

In Brazilian animator Ale Abreu's The Boy and the World, crude pencil and crayon drawings that ape the naive art of kindergartners explode into sophisticated riots of color and elaborate fantasy worlds that evoke Joan Miro and Georges Braque. Observing from a child's perspective the inexorable march of globalization and its impact on rural communities and cultural traditions, this virtually wordless feature will find its most receptive audiences among pre-verbal tots and artsy adults. But while it might have remained more captivating as a short, this is an imaginative, artisanal work, blissfully distant in style and sensibility from the computer-animated blockbusters that dominate the market.

That distinction will be both an asset and a challenge for U.S. distributor GKids when positioning the release. The New York-based company acquired the title out of the Annecy International Animated Film Festival in France, where it took home top honors in both the jury and audience awards.

In addition to its magical visuals, the film has another strong selling point in the exuberant score by Ruben Feffer and Gustavo Kurlat, which drives along the action with a symphonic choral pop sound that calls to mind a Latin-flavored Polyphonic Spree.

Identified in the credits as Cuca, the title character is a young stick-figure boy whose universe revolves around the adobe hut and farm where his parents scratch out a meager living in an isolated rural community on the edge of the jungle. Abreu and his animation crew paint this world — its trees and fields, rivers and ponds, animals and insects — with the clean, colorful simplicity of a children's picture book.

When Cuca's father is forced to head off to the city in search of work, the child sees the train that takes him away as a giant smoke-spewing centipede. The sense of wonder, enchantment and confusion that defines the way small children experience their environment is central to Abreu's storytelling. In addition to observing with a child's eye, the film also hears with young ears, from an amazing array of percussive noises to the occasional stream of nonsense language (actually, backwards Portuguese).

Attempting to follow his father, Cuca gets caught up in a series of whirlwinds — elemental, human and mechanical. He shares in the carnivalesque joy of a harvest festival, and through haunted eyes, witnesses as aged or infirm field laborers are denied work.

The tone darkens and the images become more complex when Cuca's odyssey takes him to the city, a place ruled by fascistic military troops and elephantine tanks. He boards a bus of sad-faced commuters being shuttled to a cotton mill, and sees how that raw material is processed into rolls of fabric that are packed into huge containers and hoisted onto ships by dinosaur-like cranes. Those containers are then airlifted to futuristic bubble cities (places reminiscent of the space colonies in WALL-E) to be made into expensive garments and shipped back to people unable to afford them.

While the mountainous favelas of the city are rendered as bizarrely beautiful junkyard kingdoms, Abreu hammers home the juxtaposition of wealth and poverty, with workers living in slum conditions absorbing an endless diet of consumer advertising. A live-action montage shows deforestation and environmental devastation, while a fight between a folkloric rainbow-colored bird of freedom and a black eagle of oppression underscores the grim triumph of capitalism with a somewhat heavy hand.

But even if the film could be accused of lacking subtlety and overloading on whimsy, it spreads a sobering message in a lucid story that remains visually alive and inventive throughout — its aesthetic keeps constantly shifting yet remains fluid.

While ominous signals show that technological advances risk making factory workers as obsolete as their agrarian brethren, Abreu's buoyant use of music and the cheerful curiosity of his pint-size protagonist keep it from becoming a downer. Even when he's in the gravest danger, or when he seems to be watching his own bleak future unfold, Cuca is a charmed character surrounded by a protective aura, retaining his innocence irrespective of the sorrows he encounters.

Aggressive development and increased marginalization of the poor in Brazil have already drawn criticism in the run-up to the World Cup. Those factors are expected to create widening income disparity as the country prepares for the 2016 Olympics in Rio. That makes The Boy and the World relevant to Abreu’s home, but the film is representative of any fast-growing Latin American economy in bed with global conglomerates. It offers a folksy but heartfelt warning about protecting an endangered way of life.

Production company: Filme de Papal

Voice cast: Vinicius Garcia, Marco Aurelio Campos, Lu Horta, Felipe Zilse, Ale Abreu, Cassius Romero

Director-screenwriter-producer: Ale Abreu

Executive producers: Tita Tessler, Fernanda Carvalho

Directors of photography: Debora Fernandes, Debora Slikta, Luiz Henrique Rodrigues, Marcus Vinicius Vasconcelos

Editor: Ale Abreu

Music: Ruben Feffer, Gustavo Kurlat

Animation: Ale Abreu

No rating; 80 minutes.