In Alê Abreu’s Boy and the World, the eponymous boy, a stick figure that otherwise appears to conform to the dictionary definition of a boy, is often seen moving laterally through a two-dimensional simulation of the modern world, the framing loose enough and the “camera” movement methodical enough to suggest a retro side-scroller. Like Jacques Tati’s bumbling on-screen persona in films like Playtime and Mon Oncle, the boy, who materializes at the beginning of the movie in a blank white canvas that gradually gets crowded with obstacles, appears in combat with the mechanized workings of his environment throughout, dodging cargo bins dropped from cranes and leaping across architectural gaps like Super Mario in a less fanciful Mushroom Kingdom.
Deprived of the privilege to joystick this little featureless cipher boy around, it’s reasonable to expect some kind of compelling characterization in its place, but it’s quickly apparent that Abreu intends primarily to use his character, who’s technically on a mission to reconnect with an absent father, as a vehicle to shuttle the viewer through a generic exposé on the state of the world. Transitioning from countryside to sea to village to city, the film reveals the effects of the urban landscape on natural ones.
The giveaway sequence finds the boy struggling to traverse a bustling metropolis pictured as a dizzying sprawl of industrial expansion and mindless consumption (a glimpse at a home TV set spoofs the tedium of advertising in a way that, though obviously pitched as educational for impressionable viewers, feels at least 40 years out of touch). In lieu of this menacing vision, many of the boy’s setbacks elsewhere become the evident consequences of climate change, a notion made doubly clear by a late interjection of live-action footage showing razed forests, factories spewing brownish clouds, and the ominous workings of metal production.
The film inarguably has its head in the right place. Who would dispute the value of a children’s film that warns of the very real and immediate dangers of our global footprint? But one wonders how receptive young audiences should be to a film that puts its storytelling secondary to its message-making. Bubbly as Abreu’s aesthetics are (the movie is vibrantly hand-drawn, with a sense of patterning and design that turns every location into an expressionistic tapestry), his deathly pale, black-hole-eyed human figurines, almost all voiceless, are just interchangeable representations of contemporary existential woes. This world may be lavishly conceived, with traffic jams sounding off choruses of honking accordions and the toil of cotton pickers becoming a large-scale ballet, but the boy at its center never got beyond the brainstorming stage.