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Boy and the World, The

Original title: O Menino e o Mundo

D: Alê Abreu / 80m

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

A small boy (Garcia) living in the countryside with his mother and father is devastated when his father leaves and doesn’t come back. The boy decides to go in search of his father, and in doing so encounters a migrant worker and his dog, a loom worker, and experiences the trials and perils of the world beyond his home. The boy travels a long way and sees many strange things, but his journey eventually finds him returning home, though he finds his quest has brought about an unexpected consequence.

From its beginning – creating dazzling concentric shapes of colour and design – The Boy and the World stands out as a virtuoso piece of animation, a cleverly assembled and thought out work that stimulates the mind as well as pleasing the eye (something it achieves throughout). There are a number of stylistic approaches used here to present the world the boy sees, from the open, sparsely animated countryside where we first meet him (and which is very different from the almost jungle-like environment he inhabits when he’s playing), to the ordered, grid-like orchard where the trees stretch out in row after row, and to the overcrowded, boxed-in structures of the distant city that the boy finds himself in. As the boy becomes increasingly hemmed in by the world around him, so too does the viewer. It’s a clever conceit: that the wider we roam, the more restricted we become.

The movie’s opening sequence, where the image is just the boy and a musical stone (the music is explained later on in the movie), is so simple and effective it’s a wonder that other animators don’t use this technique more often. Slowly, other textures and colours and shapes are added until the screen is filled with the riotous expression of the boy’s fantasy life. It’s a stunning progression, strangely beautiful and uplifting, a cornucopia of hues and tones mixed with swathes of water colours that bewitch and astound with every addition. And with a whistle it all disappears, receding into nothing as quickly as it was assembled; it’s a bravura sequence, superbly animated, and superbly evocative of the way a young boy might give life to a fantasy world.

With such an incredible opening the viewer might be forgiven for thinking that such a visual salvo would be difficult – if not impossible – to follow. But they’d be wrong. The boy’s home and its surroundings are uncomplicated, simplistic even, but totally in keeping with the movie’s reflection of the boy’s experience of life (only the skies are more dramatic). There’s a glorious moment when the boy’s father, waiting for the train that will take him away, is the only remaining image as everything else (except for his suitcase) fades from view. Again it’s this simplicity that makes the moment so effective and so heartbreaking for the boy. (And there’s been very little dialogue, and what there has been, has been in Portuguese which has then been played backwards.)

Leaving home, the boy’s adventure begins in earnest when he meets a sad-faced migrant worker who takes him to the orchard where he picks blossom from trees all day. There the boy hears – and sees – the music his father used to play. The boy runs among the trees, chasing the notes, and though his pursuit ends in disappointment, he remains committed to his quest – and the viewer with him. It’s a marvellous sequence, bolder and more formal in its design than anything seen previously, but still wonderfully emotive.

Boy and the World, The - scene

Later, when the boy arrives at the factory where the blossom is turned into rugs on giant looms, the tone becomes darker. Colours are muted, the curves and circles give away to more rectangular, sharper-edged shapes, and the boy encounters physical danger for the first time. Watching the movie head into more dramatic territory – there’s a hint as well that the factory is facing modernisation – it’s good to see that Abreu keeps the focus on the boy, even while the movie’s scope begins to broaden into areas involving industrialisation and the lack of workers’ rights.

From there the boy ventures by train into the big city, its box-like configuration, confusion of streets, and rampant, soulless consumerism proving too much for him. Lost, but still able to find some beauty in amongst the bustle and mayhem thanks to a kaleidoscope, the boy finds himself on a container ship that takes supplies to huge domed cities in the sky. It’s a startlingly futuristic moment, but rendered in such an awe-inspiring way that we can only share in the boy’s sense of wonder at what he sees. When he returns to the city it becomes clear there is a huge social divide, with poverty more evident than before, and the images become more detailed in order to highlight the level of despair and anguish of the people who live there. By now the movie is as dark as it’s going to get, but with the advent of real footage to show just how badly the world is being treated, the animation is dropped in favour of more hard-hitting examples of the movie’s message.

A bittersweet coda follows, but it’s in keeping with what’s gone before, the boy’s innocence transformed into something a little more modulated. He’s still able to see and hear his father’s music but it comes with a melancholy that the viewer knows he won’t be able to shake. It’s still a fitting ending, though, and the movie ends as it began, in a swirl of dazzling concentric shapes of colour and design until there is only a dot.

There is so much to admire in The Boy and the World that it’s easy to forget that it’s message is often too heavily put across (and illustrated) and there are some moments that lack the emotional heft that the movie displays elsewhere – the slums and its inhabitants are a case in point, with Abreu unable to resist pointing out how badly these people live and are treated, surrounded as they are by the kind of consumer products they’ll never be able to afford. It’s a blunt message, at odds with the more lyrical approach of the rest of the movie, and threatens to tip things over into the social injustice arena rather than have the movie continue to be about a boy’s search for his father.

As for the character designs, there are very, very few fat people depicted, with pretty much everyone appearing rake thin, though this is mainly due to the animation style that Abreu has adopted. Legs and feet are often straight lines, while arms are often held so close to the side that it appears the characters have no arms at all. It’s the adult faces that take the most getting used to, Abreu and his animators having gone for a look with the eyes that wouldn’t look amiss in say, Mama (2013) or The Woman in Black (2012), big long grey slashes that are unsettling to look at. As for the boy himself, he’s possibly the simplest character in the movie, his red-hooped top standing out in the crowd above his shorts and stick-thin legs and below his rosy-cheeked face. And with three strands of hair on top of his head, he’s just too adorable not to look at.

Rating: 8/10 – some viewers might be put off by the heavy-handed attempts at putting across the message about social injustice and the perils of institutionalised poverty, but The Boy and the World has so much more to offer; often lyrical, always beautiful to look at – even when the mood turns dark – and a rare piece of animation that really does let the movie speak for itself.