The second feature from Brazilian filmmaker Alê Abreu is perhaps the most unlikely nominee for this year’s Best Animated Feature Oscar. Not that Boy & the World isn’t absolutely exquisite; it’s just that it got only a tiny release and so has bypassed even most animation fans, and it’s not from one of the major players in modern cartoons. Boy couldn’t be any further from the typical Pixar, Disney, Studio Ghibli, or Aardman movie: this is very nearly a one-man project from Abreu, who not only wrote and directed the film but also edited it and created the utterly unique hand-drawn animation himself. Using a style reminiscent of a child’s artistic view on the world — all stick limbs and overbright colors and machines turned into monsters — Abreu entices us into the fantastical perspective of a small boy from a remote farm in an unnamed country who follows his father, who is desperate for work, into the Big City. Or perhaps it’s all an anxiety dream happening in the boy’s head as he worries for his father.
But plot is not the primary concern here. Instead, Abreu paints an expansive impressionistic canvas of unease and disquiet, but also of hope and wonder, as memories of the carefree natural landscape of the boy’s home clash with the mechanistic regimentation of the urban chaos and mess. There is no dialogue to speak of in Boy; a few lines in a fake language (actually, backwards Portuguese) suggest grownups talking about adult worries the boy cannot really understand. Yet there is glorious music everywhere, expressed in color as well as in sound: the flute music the boy recalls his father playing dances in the air like fireflies; military marching music puffs out as black smoke.
There is one instance of intrusion of live-action, documentary-style footage that breaks the film’s spell; it’s an unneeded sledgehammer driving home a point about our destruction of nature that we’d already fully taken on. Mostly, though, this is a magical film — though sometimes it’s of the scary black-magic kind — full of imagery by turns lovely and startling, often both at the same time. Boy & the World is a stunning example of the power of animation, color, and music to evoke powerful and profound emotion.