By Jonathon Sharp

With a gorgeous and evolving animation aesthetic that includes lush, crayon-drawn jungle landscapes and dada-like collages of animal machines, The Boy and the World is at once a vivid reflection on childhood and a sobering parable of economic disparities. The colorful and complex world created by Brazilian director Alê Abreu is dazzling and varied enough to keep the attention of both kids and adults, even if the work is sometimes difficult to follow, has no intelligible dialogue, and is a bit ham-handed in its politics.

The central character is a nameless and charming stick-figure boy with two lines for eyes and rosy scribbles for cheeks. The kid is on a quest to find his father, who’s recently left the family farm in the kaleidoscopic countryside to work in the city. As such, the story moves as if on train tracks from the organic and sunny grasslands to increasingly abstract and dark urban areas. Through his adventure, the boy explores plantations and textile plants, markets and slums, and befriends a musician, an old laborer and a little dog. Along with the film’s joyous soundtrack of flute music and Brazilian hip-hop, these friendships offer bits of humor and warmth in Abreu’s rather tragic story.

Indeed, it doesn’t take long to see that the world here is marked by inequality and economic forces that threaten the natural world, human communities and genuine creativity. And the ones responsible for sucking the soul out of the world look quite a bit like Americans. They are depicted as a society that literally floats above the rest of the world in high-tech bubbles, beaming up whatever resources they want. Their symbol is the eagle, and their agents replace poor workers with machines and even help to suppress the revolts of the righteous people.

And the political commentary here isn’t exactly subtle. At the climax, in fact, the animation is just replaced by grainy footage of forests being bulldozed and rivers being flooded with waste. Perhaps because Abreu has partially aimed his film at children, he really wants viewers to know that our Earth is on fire and being destroyed by greed and foolish notions of economic progress.

But even as Abreu jackhammers all this in, he also pulls off a clever trick. I won’t say what it is, but the realization forces us to see the film as both about the development of society and power structures, as well as the development of individuals. We’re eventually asked to question why it is people turn from courageous and joyful children to beaten-down husks of human beings. What is it about our society that does this? What should we change? What can we do? The answers, Abreu suggests, lie in the sanctuary of childhood, of getting back to something like a state of nature, and making more music. And whether or not one might agree with Abreu’s diagnosis or ideas, it’s hard to argue that they aren’t beautifully presented here.

The Boy and the World is playing at the St. Anthony Main Theatre.

Jonathon Sharp

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