When it comes the Oscars, the cliché has always been that "it's an honor just to be nominated." And while the actual nominees are free to disagree, there are many ways in which the bromide holds true -- particularly for the independent films that break through to Hollywood's biggest night. And by far the biggest boost an Academy Award nomination can give a film is exposure. Just look at this year's nominees for Best Animated Feature (inevitably the category with the most interesting and diverse range of films): Sure, the big guns -- Disney and Pixar -- often dominate in terms of actual wins, but the category always finds space for some delightfully offbeat and unexpected choices among the nominations. From the kid-friendly "Shaun the Sheep Movie" and the wistful "When Marnie Was There" to the Pixar blockbuster "Inside Out," and the adults-only "Anomalisa," the five nominated films run the gamut in terms of style, budget, subject matter, and country of origin.
Probably the least known among this year's batch of the nominees, Brazilian director Alê Abreu's imaginative environmental parable "Boy & the World" has finally opened in Rochester for a month-long run at The Little Theatre. The film is being released in the US by GKids, an indie distributor specializing in animation from around the world, with an outstanding track record for bringing this type of small, high-quality film to America (and to the Oscar's attention). Without its efforts leading to a crucial nomination, it is unlikely local audiences would have ever had an opportunity to see the film on the big screen.
The film tells the story of a small, carefree young boy (identified as Cuca in the credits) living on his family's farm in the country. Beginning with a mostly white screen, we see Cuca frolicking through nature, exploring his surroundings as the environment gradually fills in around him. The story progresses and the images expand and grow more detailed as the boy's perspective broadens, allowing us to see the world through his eyes. The farm is unable to sustain the family, and the boy's father is forced to leave home to find work in the city. Shortly after, Cuca also leaves home to search of his father, and along the way he encounters a world more complicated, scary, and confusing than he ever imagined.
Gradually the film's messages come into focus. As Cuca travels from the country into the big city, he meets a few individuals who bestow some kindness on him. First is an elderly man who picks cotton in the fields outside the city. The city itself presents an immaculate, gleaming image from afar, but up close it's a land of squalor and decay -- a far cry from the Eden-like environment where the boy grew up. In this urban dystopia, Cuca is taken in by a young street musician who toils in a factory, manufacturing products to be sent off overseas. Both the old man and the younger are part of a larger working class being exploited by the titans of industry.
Delivering a message warning of the dangers of globalization and capitalism, the film may not be subtle, but stylistically it dazzles. The animation has a tactile, handcrafted aesthetic that seemingly incorporates a variety of mediums: crayons and colored pencils, collage, and bit of computer animation. The whimsically imaginative and colorful design style at times resembles elaborate renderings of children's drawings. Mandalas and kaleidoscope imagery are recurring motifs, and Abreu frequently switches to overhead views, transforming the frame into beautiful geometric patterns. One section shifts to live-action footage, showing us a montage of pollution and deforestation. The jump is jarring (likely intentionally so), though it seems unnecessary as by that point the message has already been heard loud and clear.
The story is told almost entirely without spoken words; what little dialogue is present is delivered as intelligible gibberish (apparently Portuguese played backwards). The mood is set by Ruben Feffer and Gustavo Kurlat's percussive score, which incorporates Carnivale-like parade music, Brazilian hip-hop, and a mournful flute melody. In the film's world, music is a major force of good, unifying the people and lifting their spirits when times seem bleakest. Often the notes come to life on the screen, emerging from instruments and floating through the air in the form of multicolored bubbles.
While younger audiences can enjoy the bright, lively animation style of "Boy & the World," the story resonates on another level entirely for adult viewers, delivering a rather melancholy moral wrapped in wide-eyed childlike wonder.