It simply feels freeing to see a work of art made without fear of constrictive rules on style or form–or in this case, media. Such a one-of-a-kind experience is wonderfully difficult to categorize. Of course, if Filme de Papel’s Boy and the World must be categorized, then “Best Animated Feature nominee” ain’t a bad label. The Academy just announced its nomination, along with a robust slate of competition from familiar houses Pixar, Ghibli and Aardman. As these contenders evidence, it’s been an all-over great year for appreciators of animation.
Still, Boy and the World offers something the others don’t, and that’s no hyperbole. Instead of imbuing life into CG models, traditional cels or puppets; director Alê Abreu has employed a highly novel assortment of tools; including colored pencils, oil pastel, magazine scraps, and even fountain pens.
It’s tricky for any animated film to seem like the work of a singular, personal vision but–even with an army of collaborators aiding him–this does feels like it’s flowed directly out of Abreu’s sketchbook.
Actually, that might be even be close to the truth. In a statement, the director explains how he initially intended to make a documentary that charted the history of Latin America. A glance at a forgotten sketch, however, drastically changed his plans. That drawing was of Cuca, the film’s titular boy. And Cuca spoke to Abreu, demanding a far more abstract and satirical bent for the project.
The boy’s odyssey begins after his father’s departure to the big city abruptly ends an idyllic, rural childhood. Missing his Dad terribly, Cuca soon follows him by train, and stops at numerous surreal sites which turn dreamy or nightmarish with a kind of startling mercuriality. At one stop, the musicians of an endless parade beckon him like an army of pied pipers. At another, he watches giant, locus-like machines ravenously devour an entire forest outside a cotton plant.
The farther Cuca ventures, the more expressive the animation gets–evolving stylistically as this boy gets to know his world better. The early scenes of childhood innocence are rendered with sparse lines, while the latter scenes of unrestrained urban sprawl are a dizzying crisscross of clashing texture. When Cuca does finally reach the megalopolis his father’s disappeared into, it’s a Byzantine maze of platforms and girders, stacked so densely as to seem indistinguishable from a pyramid. Reality even intrudes on the fantasy at a crucial moment, literally burning the frame away to reveal footage of environmental disaster.
The comparison is hardly exact, but Boy and the World does invite a worthwhile comparison to the Beatles’ Yellow Submarine. Both are ambitious work of psychedelia, not beholden to any rules of what animation is “supposed” to look like. And music absolutely drives both. This film has a handful of spoken lines in Portuguese, but it may as well be wordless. All story is told through the varied visuals, and through a soundtrack that’s just as eclectic, with dynamic selections of hip-hop and samba.
This is a purely sensory and emotional experience that transcends any language or culture barrier. There’s much to be said about the universality of cartooning, and silent little Cuca makes a compelling case for it. His simply-rendered face is a mask that anybody, from any corner of the world, can project themselves into for this colorful and mesmerizing journey. Do consider him during Oscar season.
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Photo Credits: GKids