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Boy & the World (2013)

I try to avoid reading about a film before I see it, so all I knew about Boy & the World was that it was being widely acclaimed. Not only did it win the 2016 Annie Award for Best Independent Feature, it is also nominated for the Oscar for Best Animated Feature. That nomination sets it against Pixar’s heavyweight Inside Out, amongst other worthy films. Boy & the World’s deceptively simple style, combined with the cuteness of the title character and bright color palette, suggest a certain kind of movie. However, what you actually get is something unexpectedly different. The story is simple: a young boy, who we meet exploring the natural world around him, discovers his father is leaving to find work to support his family. After he leaves, the boy decides to follow him. The film follows this journey through a  Brazilian landscape.

Boy & the World deserves its accolades because of the animation itself. The vibrant movement of patterns and colors are firmly in the tradition of animation’s too rarely screened history. From Oskar Fischinger’s abstract musical animations to Norm McLaren’s similar use of music, movement, and art, this kind of animation is rarely seen, but undeservedly so. It is to director Ale Abreu’s credit that his entire film is a wonder to behold and a welcome return to the use of animation for such vibrant storytelling.

The Boy’s explorations of nature, music, color, and art continue throughout the film. Watching the Boy makes the film a joy. As Brazil is to the world what New Orleans is to the United States, music is befittingly what cues us to much of the Boy’s perspective. The musical stops and starts usually serve to bring us into the Boy’s head, helping us understand his thoughts. The movie has no actual dialogue. Our understanding is guided by the visuals. What develops as the film continues is a challenging narrative, but Abreu does a mostly masterful job, continually allowing his directorial choices of what to animate to tell the story without words. This film reminded me of another Oscar nominated film, Shaun the Sheep Movie, a film where dialogue is never missed.

As I watched Boy & the World, it surprised me how often I was reminded of other films: beautifully painted backgrounds made me think of the dramatic backgrounds in Bill Melendez’s A Charlie Brown Christmas; the use of human eyes and grungy real-life imagery as the Boy encounters big-city life through advertising made me think of Ralph Bakshi’s use of similar elements to evoke dirty urban streets; in addition, this film’s war and industrial scenes suggested dream imagery from the animation of the film version of Pink Floyd’s The Wall. Perhaps most enjoyable for me were the scenes in which the Boy looks through a kaleidoscope and walks through a construction site, as miraculously safe as Swee’ Pea from one of my favorite Popeye shorts, Child Sockology: both little tykes manage to stay alive while crawling along construction beams swinging high in the air. The scenes appear to have impending doom, but in the nick of time a new place to step always swings by. As I said, when the Boy enjoys discovering the World, in all its color, music, and wonder, so do we in the audience.

However, there is a much darker story being told, and my above references to Bakshi and
The Wall should suggest it. I don’t think it is too much of a spoiler to note that when we first see the boy’s father, his face, rather disconcertingly, appears very skull-like. As the boy proceeds on his journey, too often what he perceives as beautiful and worthy of his full attention turn out to be only brief moments providing respite from harsh life, rather than signals that the world is a happy place. The true nature of the boy, and the various people he meets along the way, tells a rather sad tale in the end. The narrative takes on a political and social stance which I am very much sympathetic toward, but which I must admit I did not expect. The end result was one of great sadness, especially in contrast with the wondrous movement, art, and music on display. As the moments of wonder get briefer and briefer, this film reminds us to cherish them all the more in our own lives. The narrative enhances our appreciation of the animation in the film, as it allows us some color and awe amidst the darker narrative.

Though I had been hoping for an even more positive film experience, I have only one real fault with the film. After working so well by telling its story through its form – the animation needing nothing other than itself to make complexity understood – there is one short sequence in which non-animated, real-life footage is used to make a well-taken but possibly superfluous point. This breaks the spell – adding elements unneeded throughout the earlier parts of the film. I wish another way had been found to make this statement as for me this was a big misstep that should have been edited out.

Though the narrative resonates with me, so that I understand why accolades are being laid on Boy & the World, my initial thought was to give a three-star rating. I like it, but perhaps may not watch this again. However, the animation is so beautiful, mesmerizing, and alive.

For art as masterful as this, I bring my rating up and say this is a solid four-star film, definitely worth another watch.

BOY & THE WORLD is now showing in limited release in Cinemas in North America courtesy of GKIDS FILMS.