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If a little kid dropped some acid, his trip might resemble one of this year’s What’s that? best animated feature Oscar nominees, The Boy & the World. The boy in question, Cuca, sees music as colorful orbs, chills on clouds, and swims through the air with a cotton ball keeping him afloat. Views both outdoors and indoors are often geometric and symmetrical—when they’re not kaleidoscopic or straight-up psychedelic. It’s fitting that the boy giggles and gasps a lot.
What Cuca doesn’t do is talk. He doesn’t even have a mouth, just a round Charlie Brown head with a few strands of hair, two long vertical strokes for eyes, and pink circles on his cheeks. Cuca resembles the rest of his world, though the adults sometimes exchange words in an unintelligible language that’s actually backward Portuguese.
Brazilian writer-director Alé Abreu isn’t quite as successful in his dialogue-free storytelling as Boy’s fellow nominee, Shaun the Sheep—you’ll have questions. But considering the film’s conspicuous music and fluid, colorful, dizzying tapestry, it seems that Abreu is more concerned with evoking emotions than presenting a clear arc.
Until, that is, the very end, when he wields his sledgehammer. But first, the crux of the tale: Cuca lives in a rural area, where he’s tickled to continually discover nature and wild animals and the particular music they provide. The boy’s idyll ends, however, when his father leaves for the city, his goodbye to Cuca in the form of a few notes from a flute that will lodge in your brain as insistently as it does in Cuca’s.
Cuca is inconsolable, so he makes his way to the city himself, searching and sad as follows any whispers of music and repeatedly mistakes strangers for his pop. He does make a friend, but their curious bond isn’t as important as the bustling, showy urban center he discovers. It’s all industry and congestion, plastered with cartoonishly grotesque ads and factory workers lifelessly performing their jobs. At the end of the day, Cuca hops a bus with the rest of them and ends up trailing his soon-to-be friend up barrio steps and into his apartment, where the guy eats a can of mush and falls asleep in front of the TV (miserably, one assumes).
Here’s where the film becomes The Director and the Message: Industrialization and city life is bad; self-sufficiency and living among nature is good. A militia actually shows up near some obvious hippies who are singing joyfully, with a colorful bird their apparent mascot; soon it fights a black bird, and then the army starts firing at it. (Yes, “WTF?” is a reasonable response.) But wait, there’s more: Abreu isn’t content at simply illustrating how destructive modern living can be—he slips in some live action, images of dead fish washed ashore and such.
Oh, right, the search for Dad. Well, the resolution doesn’t matter much, because the skeletal plot was essentially a vehicle to make a statement about the world—never mind the boy. And speaking of children, this is one animated film that isn’t necessarily for adults only, such as Anomalisa. But despite an 80-minute run time, little ones might get antsy when all the eye-popping colors and crazy drawings lose their novelty. Or, alternatively, when the kids also start asking, “WTF?”—Tricia Olszewski
The Boy and the World opens today at the Angelika Pop-Up and Angelika Film Center.