'Tito and the Birds' ('Tito e os Passaros'): Film Review

Tito and the Birds Still — Publicity — H 2018
Courtesy of Shout! Studios
A moody toon for adult connoisseurs.

An animated Brazilian adventure finds a boy trying to save the world with the help of wise pigeons.

"I decided I would never be scared again," a fierce grade-schooler announces at the outset of Tito and the Birds, whose eponymous hero lives in a world where fear truly is something worth fearing. Beset by a mysterious contagion, its citizens are suffering a physical literalization of something afflicting many of us in the real world: paranoia and despair that makes them physically incapable of taking any action at all. The solutions in this moody film by Gabriel Bitar, Andre Catoto and Gustavo Steinberg are, well, nothing if not original; while subtitles and a dark tone will place it out of the realm of most American kids, the odd film will win over many older animation fans.

Echoing the reality of writer-director Steinberg's native Sao Paolo, the residents of Tito's hometown live behind gates when they can afford to do so. A fearmongering TV host, Alaor Souza, is ready to profit from that by developing a vast gated community called Dome Garden — whose transparent shell keeps out rodents and the pigeons thought of by most as rats with wings.

But birds are dear to Tito, whose father, Dr. Rufus, was a mad-seeming scientist obsessed with a machine he believed would communicate with our feathered friends. When the machine blew up and nearly killed father and son, Tito's mother cast her husband out; though the boy tries to use his own gifts to rebuild the machine, his father hasn't contacted the family in years.

He'd better hurry up and get in touch, because a mysterious epidemic is spreading fast. Symptoms of "the Outbreak" initially look like everyday panic (bulging eyes, jittery limbs), but victims soon devolve into lumps of terrified clay, then turn to stone. Urging citizens to steer clear of the infected and other possible means of transmission, the authorities sum up: "In short, avoid everything."

This nightmarish world is put across in dark hues with thick swaths of impasto paint. The animators sometimes use digital tools to bring their slightly macabre-looking characters to life, but their environs are always organic and vibrantly depicted, brushstrokes rapidly materializing as the camera swirls through expressionistic interiors and nocturnal cityscapes. A Danny Elfman-like score and the dark earnestness of lead voice actor Matheus Nachtergaele's performance make this world believable enough that the film's big revelation — city pigeons, as humanity's ancient companions, know how we can stop being so paralyzed by fear — doesn't sound quite as ridiculous as it should.

Tito and his friend Sarah team up with Alaor Souza's son Teo — a boastful inventor who is Tito's rival at science fairs — to work out the kinks in his machine, but they wind up having pretty hair-raising adventures outside the lab, and the filmmakers aren't afraid of showing characters we like suffering gruesome fates. Happily, the pigeons are on top of things in the end.

Production companies: Bits Broducoes, Split Studio
Distributor: Shout! Factory
Cast: Pedro Henrique, Marina Serretiello, Matheus Solano, Enrico Cardoso, Denise Fraga, Matheus Nachtergaele
Directors: Gabriel Bitar, Andre Catoto, Gustavo Steinberg
Screenwriters: Eduardo Benaim, Gustavo Steinberg
Producers: Daniel Greco, Felipe Sabino, Gustavo Steinberg
Production designers: Chico Bela, Vini Wolf

Editors: Vania Debs, Thiago Ozelami
Composers: Ruben Feffer, Gustavo Kurlat

In Portuguese
73 minutes