Sad Hill Media

Film & Lesser Arts with Will Ross, Devan Scott, & Daniel Jeffery.

by Will Ross

There are three misdirections in the title of Boy and the World. The first is “Boy”, and though this misdirection lies at the heart of the film’s single most brilliant and defining gesture, I daren’t spoil its corresponding reveal at the end of the film, so you will have to take my word for it (I’ll throw in a couple of cryptic allusions to it to make up for that). The second is the ordering of the nouns, because while the central boy and his childlike perspective of his surroundings is central to the movie’s approach, the film is ultimately more concerned with the machinations of a World slowly crumbling under some combination of aggressive, unchecked capitalism and fascism.

The third misdirection is tonal, for a glance at Boy and the World’s promotional materials, or any given shot, or even just watching the first few minutes, would suggest you’re in for a feather-light, gamboling trip through elaborate images whose base aesthetic use a child’s doodling and collage as its main reference points. Writer-director Alê Abreu maintains that visual style, but it quickly transpires that Boy and the World is a sorrowful film, filled with equal rage and despair for a world whose consumerism and commercialization is crushing beauty and joy out of everyday life and systematically threatening the bonds of familial love. That it combines this form and intent, as well as moments of humour, but never indulges in cheap irony or sarcasm, bespeaks a maturity and seriousness that inspire an emotionally-involved political engagement. There aren’t many animated features that even aspire to that, let alone achieve it.

The film’s plot revolves around a little boy living on a farm in the country, who scampers happily through the rainbow-pastels of the grass and plays with the animals and lives a life of such innocence that when his father gets on a train and leaves for the city, he is unable to comprehend the absence of a loved one, let alone accept it. Seemingly more by impulse than by despair,the boy hops on a train and journeys to the city, and on his way there he encounters people struggling to make daily ends meet. These people’s entire lives appear to revolve around their labour; one is an old, sickly-looking man who picks cotton on a farm under the harsh scrutiny of his foreman, and one of the film’s most distinctive stretches of its kid’s-art style is a birds-eye shot that reduces the farmworkers to computer-arranged rows of abstract, geometric shapes. When the oblivious boy reaches the city, the structures and oppressiveness of consumer-capitalism become even more suffocating. The film, as I said, is a broadside to these environments, and though their design becomes ever-more elaborate, the film never loses sight of the person at its center. Indeed, the exhaustion of merely processing the world’s backgrounds and operational minutiae is enough to make the mere companionship of the boy’s newfound friends profoundly comfortable, and those moments of respite help the film narrowly avoid becoming a ceaseless parade of impressive but unmodulated design concepts. (And then that final revelation reveals the devastating irony of those acts of compassion.)

All of this is handled through wordless, subjective illustration, and I can’t say enough good things about how Boy and the World expands the possibilities and scale available to this kind of hand-drawn, show-the-brushstrokes animation. After I fawned over Inside Out, it was somewhat taken to task by some friends, who argued that its commercially-friendly adventure-story plot structure limited its ability to fully explore its conceit, that some “in the brain” scenes are arbitrarily justified, and that for every innovation towards the metaphorical depiction of an inner life, the film set down some sort of limitation. It’s hard for me to refute these claims (though I disagree that they meaningfully detract from Inside Out’s accomplishments), but it’s easy to see Boy and the World as somewhat of a corrective to these caveats, with its tricky ambiguity between real-world experience and expressionistic memories.

An even more fruitful comparison can be drawn between Boy and the World and Don Hertzfeldt’s 2015 short World of Tomorrow, a film similarly concerned between the impact of “progress” upon its stick figure characters; while World of Tomorrow suggested an inner life so defined by technology and digitizations that the film’s environments are visually defined by computer-perfect lines and shapes, Boy and the World uses its drawn-on-paper aesthetic to express the view that capitalist industrialization is incompatible with basic human decency. Both films have a decidedly pessimist outlook on techno-industrial progress, but the clichéd rural-urban/happiness-misery dichotomy of Boy is my only real sticking point with it. That’s not to say that Abreu’s politics are shallow or stupid; indeed, if they were, I doubt he could conceive images at once so intellectually and emotionally evocative as cities so over-developed, they taper upwards into the sky like long, upside-down funnels.

Boy and the World’s last 15 minutes are some of the most dense, upsetting moments of any recent movie I’ve seen precisely because its allegory is so convincing, its expressions of joy and culture (and cute dogs) so loving and beautiful that it’s nearly unbearable to see them beaten down by the powers that be. There is a momentary formal rupture during this climax that replaces animation that suggests a cold, literal reality But the film stops just short of hopelessness, thank god; though it’s undeniably sad, it holds tight to the comfort of beauty amidst tragedy, and the inalienable personal charm of its craftsmanship suggests that there is an intrinsic joyousness to living and feeling that, in some way, makes it all worth it. Even that could have amounted to sentimental defeatism in the face of oppression, but Boy and the World couples that final personal message of hope with the impression that the seemingly endless cycle of that oppression may also mean that there’s still time to make a change.


Post a Comment