Words by Cooper Copeland
To be a child. How does it work? What does it mean? To be something so small in a world that—in those early years—seems entirely yours has to be one of the greatest powers we can ever possess.
To director and animator Alê Abreu that sense of infinite possibility and reach is a thing of splendor, until the universe reminds you, through age and experience, that other forces are work—forces which seek to make you feel like a small insignificant cog in an uncontrollable instrument of sorrow, oppression, and greed. And yet, with his animated feature Boy and the World, Abreu sketches how those childhood years of wild exploration can go on to inform our later selves with a greater sense of hope, even if only for a short while.
Born n’ bred in the bustling pulse of São Paulo, Brazil, Abreu has, in his past decade of work, been infatuated with the culture and history of his South American heritage. How the people, towns, and music of the country have simultaneously fostered the most beautiful of spirited things, as well as cultivated some of the darkest sides of human nature, was a notion that Abreu craved to tap into. There was something about the plight of discovery met with imprisonment that needed to be cradled, and so we get Boy and the World. But do not fret. Boy and the World is not a fastidious tale of what we can do to cure our environment or the world of all of its delirious problems. It’s a projection of the heartbeat that gets us through it—the roads and the faces that make the often-unbearable journey something of uncanny worth. And in this case, the journey starts with a crayon.
When first diving into Abreu’s world of feverishly buoyant imagery, you first encounter simplicity: the humble notion of a boy listening to the secret song contained in a stone. Abreu uses the blank white space of the page to let his subject, a boy named Cuca, traipse and explore at will through the world as it unfolds at his feet. It’s when his father leaves to work in the city as a laborer, where Cuca’s adolescence all of the sudden becomes something precarious and fragile. As he leaves his home in hopes of reuniting with his dad, he discovers a world that is overwrought with the machinery of adulthood, where dirt, money, and corruption are the reality and imagination is a thing of the past. Steadily, the screen becomes polluted with information as Cuca comes face to face with poverty and capitalism. Yet still, the memory of his father and the hope of his youth drive him onward.
At first glance, Abreu’s film brings to mind another animated masterpiece, Sylvain Chomet’s The Triplets of Belleville. The type of somber joy that Abreu infuses throughout Boy and the World, as well as the music that is wielded as the breath of the narrative, is a welcome likeness that we perhaps haven’t seen in such good form since Belleville’s 2003 release. And while Abreu’s structure is quite simple, devoid of such a tickling plot as its French compadre, Boy and the World is an unmistakable piece of wonderment. This is thanks to both Abreu’s somewhat absurdly imaginative illustrations, as well as the musical scoring by Gustavo Kurlat and Ruben Feffer who created an all-encompassing range in the film’s soundscape, while still embracing the qualities of Brazil’s cultural noise. When the image and sound come together like they do in Cuca’s universe, it becomes impossible to imagine one without the other. How Cuca uses the page to play and hopscotch through the wild terrain of rural and then city life takes on a whole new sense of abandonment when traditional percussions cue in a his feet hit the ground or as he ascends into the clouds.
It’s little surprise Abreu listened to Sigur Rós while animating Boy in the World. Boundaries are not acknowledged. Limits are nowhere to be found. It’s just the feeling that infiltrates your heart when you look into a kaleidoscope and realize nothing is as it seems. That is Boy and the World.