If every Academy Awards category celebrated innovation, technical achievement, and conceptual diversity as much as this year's Best Feature Animation category does, we'd all be much more engaged with the annual awards ritual. The five nominees from 2015 cover four countries, and they run the gamut for intended ages: Shaun The Sheep Movie is for younger kids, When Marnie Was There for older ones, and Anomalisa for adults only, with Inside Out bridging all gaps by dealing with parent / child relationships in ways that invite families to watch the film together. The films cover radically different subjects, visual styles, and production methods, and they emerged from a commensurately wide range of studio power. The fact that a $175 million movie like Inside Out could wind up in the same category as the hand-drawn, $400,000 Brazilian picture Boy & The World feels like a minor miracle.
But two things make it look less miraculous, and more like the product of hard work. First, Boy & The World is being released in America by Brooklyn-based indie distributor GKIDS, which has a stellar record of successfully bringing little-known but tremendous foreign animated films like The Secret Of Kells, Ernest & Celestine, The Rabbi's Cat, and Song Of The Sea into the Oscar slate. (After a brief qualifying run in New York and LA in December 2015, GKIDS is expanding the film's run considerably in January.) Second, Boy & The World is a gem of a movie. The latest from Brazilian director Alê Abreu brings together childish simplicity and adult concerns in an unpredictable story that feels organic and comfortable as it morphs from one thing to the next over the course of 80 minutes.
Boy & The World starts simply, with a series of colorful mandalas, and a child named Cuca exploring the blank white screen representing his environment. As he moves around, shifting his focus from a butterfly to a horse to a stream, the white space fills with detail, and the soundscape builds into something richer. Cuca's world literally becomes bigger and fuller as he navigates it. It's an economical reflection of childhood wonder, the way every event feels like a discovery, and each new thing makes the world more complicated. But eventually, Cuca's world gets bigger than he can handle. His father leaves their rural home, looking for work. Grief-stricken and baffled, Cuca goes looking for him, and discovers a factory, a community, then a dense and crowded city. As the world becomes overwhelming, he becomes an increasingly aware observer, witness to clashes between a grim and dominant establishment and a people's movement steeped in creativity and joy. Along the way, he meets people who respond to him and help him — a weary old man in a tin-can hat, a drained but hopeful musician — but their nature doesn't become clear until the end of the film, when Abreu's abstract, wordless, stream-of-conscious storytelling finally matures into something more structurally ambitious.
It's unclear how much of Abreu's political message Cuca absorbs. He's clearly very young — possibly even pre-verbal, given his naïve choices, his vast sense of fearless interest in the world, and the fact that he doesn't speak over the course of the film. But Abreu still uses him as a traveling focal point, taking in the destruction of the rainforests by monstrous machines, the casual discarding of aged or undersized workers, and the symbolic war between creativity and conformity, waged between the worker class and the bosses who subjugate and then replace them. Given the emotional power of the symbols Abreu uses to convey some of these ideas, it's jarring and even excessive when he cuts to live action to show images of real deforestation, to further drive his point home. At its extremes, Boy & The World can be sleepy, or strident, especially about underlining its messages.
But technically and stylistically, it's breathtaking. Abreu uses hand-drawn lines in a childish style to convey Cuca and his immediate world. The raw, crayon-lined art looks primitive, but also personal, and evokes Cuca's unfinished mindset, which doesn't yet know how to fill in the blanks around him. In a detail-oriented age where quality in animation often means cramming every inch of the frame with texture, Abreu's initially airy design feels spacious and soaring as well as playful. And the way it develops over time, into a staggeringly rich and complicated cityscape, feels like an endless series of Easter egg rewards for sticking with the story.
Abreu's set pieces lay realism and surrealism side by side, keeping Cuca's reactions raw and visceral, but toying with texture and image for surprising effects. At one point, Cuca plummets from a window in a cotton factory, but he's rescued by all the loose cotton in the air bunching up under him, into a cloudy floating pillow that lets him air-swim to safety. As he gets closer to civilization, he's increasingly bombarded with ads, which consist of an endless parade of yammering nonsense-words and flashing products, occasionally interspersed with eerily grinning models with photo-cutout mouths and eyes. And over and over, Cuca encounters music, which Abreu visualizes as puffs of brightly colored fluff drifting from instruments and hovering on the breeze like dandelion fluff. Music plays a major part in the wordless world of the film, with Brazilian hip-hop, blasting marching band music, and plaintive pan flute tunes setting the tone for various scenes and helping to build the setting.
Abreu highlights the innocence and energy of creation
The melancholy of growing up hangs heavily over Boy & The World, as Cuca leaves the warmth of his family and goes on a journey where injustice, depression, exhaustion, and rage infect the people. But there's simultaneously a sense of joy in discovery, both for the audience, who gets to wonder what each new visual metaphor or stylistic experiment will bring, and for Cuca, who's rarely intimidated for long by anything he encounters. Abreu makes coming of age feel like something destined to exhaust even the cheeriest of children as they start to understand how much of their world is shaped by greed and violence. But he also underlines the innocence and energy that goes into creation at any age. For once, the Academy Awards have it right: this strange, lovely creation really is one of the year's absolute best animated films.