Ale Abreu’s marvelous — and now Oscar-nominated — animated feature “Boy and the World” (“O Menino e o mundo”) might have equally been well-served by the title “Boy Meets World,” if that were not already a proven TV entity. The little boy here, a stick-figured, button-headed, wide-eyed tot with a signature red-and-white striped shirt, is one of the most distinctive and adorable animated characters you’ll ever come across, and his introduction to “the world out there” is a moving revelation indeed.
Cuca’s story starts off simply enough: He lives with his mother and father in the remote Brazilian countryside, where farm life — while beautiful and full of laughter and daydreams in a little boy’s world view — is an overwhelming struggle for Mama and Papa. So difficult that his father one day packs up and boards a train headed to parts unknown, presumably to the big city far away in search of a better way to make a living.
The devastated boy, who speaks (albeit on extremely rare occasions) in jibberish (in fact, all of the film’s scarce dialogue sounds as if the voice actors are talking backwards), decides he must find his father, and journeys out to find him, suitcase and family snapshot in tow. Along the way, the world reveals itself as both bucolic and boisterous, unspooling amid colorful and brilliantly “flat” crayonlike drawings and watercolors, where the villains are clearly sketched out in black swaths and the poor and the working-class are painted in a rainbow of colors against a soundtrack of Brazilian hip-hop, samba, rock and gentle, indigenous folk.
The outside world is a study in stark contrasts between the wealthy who live the utopian high life in their gorgeous cities in the clouds, and the masses who make their homes in the overcrowded, gritty barrios. The boy sees all of this, but what does it all mean to a child? He spends time with an aging cotton picker desperate to keep his pitiful job in a world that is unfair, cold and cruel. He observes the factory workers who move in military precision, churning out textiles and such, laboring under the watchful eye of scheming bosses and corrupt owners.
The little boy also meets up with a young busker who rides a bike through the endless crowded streets, showing his pint-sized pal the bustling marketplace and the over-commercialized city, where nobody knows your name and everybody likes it that way. All of it reveals a planet in jeopardy (on so many levels), just one of the film’s clear and familiar messages. (There’s even a brief passage where newsreel footage of deforestation and pollution of the air and water interrupts the animation.)
Throughout the film, grown-ups with their very “Day of the Dead”-like faces are omnipresent, though none are menacing (except for the dark and foreboding Nazi-like industrialists and soldier-like riot police). The child finds moments of happiness in carnival celebrations, but those, too, invariably ignite the longing for his father who is somewhere out there still.
If you’re looking for a happy ending — and this being a children’s animated feature, one would expect as much — you will not necessarily find it here. That’s not necessarily a spoiler, for there is much that transpires in the precious last seconds of this visual and music-filled feast (the score by Ruben Feffer and Gustavo Kurlat is superbly minimalist). The world truly does go round and round.
GKIDS presents a film written and directed by Ale Abreu. Running time: 80 minutes. Rated PG (for thematic material and images). Opens Friday at the Gene Siskel Film Center.