When you watch a lot of mainstream Hollywood movies, it’s easy to forget other types of films exist. This is especially true when it comes to animation, where viewers can get lulled into the Disney/Pixar way to watch them. Studio Ghibli is even pretty mainstream by a lot of these standards. I always, therefore, really love watching a completely different kind of animated movie that doesn’t adhere to any of the established “rules” of the form. Because in animation—perhaps more so than any other genre—can we truly go anywhere and see anything. So why not show us a world we’ve never seen before? The Brazilian film Boy & the World by writer director Alê Abreu certainly counts as that.
Looking a bit like a mixture of Don Hertzfeldt and the 1950s animated film Gerald McBoing-Boing, Boy & the World is a highly stylized, practically wordless film about seeing civilization through the eyes of a child while displaying the dangers of rampant expansion and industrialization. A lot of the art looks like it was drawn by a child, which is perfect for this story. The film is less about plot and story than it is about melding art and music in a way we definitely don’t do over here very much.
The film follows a little boy from a rural area who gets separated from his parents and ends up on a journey across all kinds of terrain and weather before finally reaching the big city. The simpler the area is, the less detailed the art style—which means a lot of the countryside is just a white background with maybe a few lines for our characters to walk through. At one point, the boy hitches a ride on a traveling fruit seller’s pull-cart along with a dog, and to depict the hills, the film merely has a single wavy line over the background. But as the rain begins to fall, the line-valley becomes a pool of water. It’s not literally on screen, but Abreu is able to depict it beautifully through a minimal amount of pencil strokes.
Contrast this with the mechanical parts of the big city. While still flat—like a picture in a book—these cityscapes are big and detailed and full of moving metal pieces, and the soundtrack mimics the sound of machinery with musical instruments. It’s a very cool thing. At one point, the boy is on a freight ship going across the sea and eventually sees several domed, floating cities like something out of The Jetsons. This represents, I suppose, the utopian view of what city life can be, which is juxtaposed with the regular city which is built up to the point of looking like a pointy, spire-y rock formation with sharp edges and visible rivets.
There’s also a thread in the narrative about what appears to be the steady influx of a Fascist regime in the city. People dressed in black begin moving things in and displacing the happy working class. More and more, these changes are represented by magazine cut-outs or photographs, until we finally get the 2D animation torn away from the screen to reveal old film footage of burning forests and bulldozing houses. It’s very strong symbolism and feels totally in keeping with the rest of the film
Boy & the World had a very limited opening on December 11, but if you’re able to see it, I would certainly recommend the 80 minute journey. There’s no subtitles, but you don’t need them because all the dialogue is in an imaginary backward version of Portuguese. Just sit back and let the images wash over you.
Kyle Anderson is a film and TV critic for Nerdist.com. He watches more cartoons now than he did as a kid. Follow him on Twitter and talk animation!