A Whole New ‘World’: Brazilian director Alê Abreu brings his inner child out for one of the year's best animated films

Movies Features

Since its first Oscar nomination with Tomm Moore’s The Secret of Kells in 2010, animation distributor GKIDS has become a mainstay in the Best Animated Feature Oscar category, racking up six nominations for their more worldly, independent fare alongside the higher-budget offerings from major studios. Come Oscar nomination time, if there’s an animated film that has you wondering “Wait, what is…?,” it’s probably a GKIDS release.

The reason GKIDS films keep getting nominated despite the company's low (relative to Disney, DreamWorks, et. al.) profile is that, simply put, their films tend to be really good. That’s the case with GKIDS’ newest release, Brazilian director Alê Abreu’s Boy and the World. Hitting theatres in limited release today, December 11th, it’s already racked up quite a bit of Oscar buzz, winning 44 awards during its festival run and earning three Annie Awards nominations.

It deserves every single one of them—and an Oscar nomination besides. For his second feature, after 2007’s Garoto Cósmico, Abreu has crafted a breathtaking paean to the power of visual storytelling. In an unusual move for a 21st-century film, Boy is both hand-drawn and virtually devoid of dialogue, much like Sylvain Chomet’s 2003 animated hit The Triplets of Belleville. Despite substantial differences between the two films—notably completely different visual styles and different countries of origin—both Boy and Triplets feature an underdog character who leaves the comfort of their home in order to search for a family member who’s been spirited away by malevolent entity. In Triplets, a grandmother searches for her grandson, kidnapped during the Tour de France. In Abreu’s film, an unnamed young boy leaves his home in the idyllic countryside in search of his father, who, as a single cog in the vast machine of Brazil’s cotton industry, is at the mercy of an entity more legal but no less menacing than the French mafia.

Abreu, speaking through a translator, describes the three-year process of making Boy and the World as something quite loose: “I didn’t really know what kind of film I was making. I felt very insecure in many moments. But I always had the courage to move on. It’s a film that was made without a script, and with a radically free method of construction.” Though a small animation team of fifteen to twenty people worked on Boy, Abreu was the only person responsible for the backgrounds.

The sheer amount of work involved is even more impressive when you consider that Boy is done not in one style of animation, but several. The story starts out with a blank page—“almost like a spiritual space,” says Abreu—that is filled with simple yet evocative drawings reminiscent of what you might find in a child’s sketchbook. As the boy gets closer to the city, the art style becomes more geometric and controlled, simple drawings replaced by collages that represent the eclipsing of nature by human industry. The shift “becomes much stronger, to the point where [Boy] breaks with animation” entirely and gives way to a live-action montage depicting the destruction of the environment. These transitions—country to city, folk art to modern—are joined by the transition from child to adult, with a specific focus on “the knowledge that growing up brings us, for better or worse, and how much reason blinds us.”

If all this sounds a bit heavy for a kid’s film, 1) you’ve clearly never seen Wall-E, and 2) Abreu makes no bones about the fact that Boy and the World has definite political elements. In fact, the film started as an animated documentary “about the beauty of Latin America and all the dictatorships that those countries had to face. One day, while I was doing research for this documentary, I found drawings of this boy in one of my sketchbooks. I immediately dropped the documentary to try to listen to this little boy and find out what he was telling me. And that’s when this project began.” In a marked change of pace, Abreu’s next film, Voyagers of the Enchanted Forest, is about two boys from warring kingdoms lost in a “psychedelic” forest; the script, which Abreu has been writing for the last year, pulls heavily from '70s bands like Yes and Rush for inspiration.

Though there’s a lot of symbolism in the Boy and the World that young children in all probability won’t pick up on—as in a scene where a phoenix, representing the people of Brazil, fights the embodiment of the army, a giant black bird that, Abreu admits, bears a marked resemblance to the Nazi eagle—this isn’t a film that kids (specifically the sensitive, artistically inclined ones) will be bored by. It might not have the action scenes or broad comedy found in most major animated releases, but the visuals are absolutely captivating, and the story, though simple, has a powerful resonance. Abreu didn’t make Boy and the World for any particular generation, arguing that it “can talk to the audience on different levels” and dedicating it, above all, to “the kid that’s inside every adult.”