The lively little fellow we meet in the Brazilian film Boy and the World has a circle for a head topped with three goofy hairs, two vertical slits for eyes, a striped tee-shirt and black shorts. That's it, but he contains multitudes, and this lovely animated poem to migrant labor will show you them all. Together with his loving parents, who are drawn with equal economy, Boy lives poor but happy in a rural idyll depicted in slashes of brilliant color, much like the free drawing of a child. The wind rustles; cobalt butterflies hover; he plants a seed; he's happy. Then his beloved father leaves, presumably to find work in the city. We don't know for sure because there's no script as such. The characters speak no recognizable language, only muttered dialogue in the background to set the scene along with the ambient noise of a quiet backwater.
Boy takes off to find his Dad, and if you like or if you're a child yourself, he can just be a kid on a picaresque animated adventure carrying nothing but a dog-eared picture of his family, his boundless curiosity and a gift for turning everyday objects into works of folk art. It's hard to put into words the wildly imagined beauty of director Ale Abreu's drawing, with crayons and other tools kids might use. There's method in that: We experience Boy's journey through his eyes as he navigates first the cotton fields stalk by on stilts in a stately dance, and then an urban world filled with danger, terror and wonder. The drawing turns geometric and majestic, a jungle of tall buildings and steep stairways in shades of magenta and emerald green fading at night to grey. The mood is by turns carnival and menacing, hectic and jangling, a cacophony of overwhelming but magical stimuli. Frightened and entranced, Boy weaves through harbor cranes and containers, often losing his way as he's swept along on a giant wave or lifted willy-nilly on shipyard containers, only to be wordlessly rescued by a mysterious young cyclist in a rainbow knit cap.
Amid all this spectacle, we barely notice that this classic tale of the country versus the city, without ever losing its fairy-tale enchantment, has turned political. Boy and the World grew incidentally out of an animated documentary Abreu was making about Brazil's volcanic post-colonial history. His is a proudly populist, even Marxist vision, but never for a moment programmatic. The volatile score is cobbled together from protest songs of the 1960s and 1970s and world music gathered into a thrilling mix by Gustavo Kurlat and Ruben Feffer. Nobody has a name, and the cadaverous sameness of the faces of men Boy keeps mistaking for his father bears witness to the millions of workers who suffer the collateral damage of a military coup, followed by aggressive industrialization that pollutes both the city and the lovely countryside of Boy's youth.
At once a contemporary allegory and an ancient fable, Boy and the World may be read in its entirety as a dream or a fantasy in which it hard to separate Boy from the male figures who shelter and protect him. Are the silent young worker in a cap, or that bent old under a tree, variants of his own evolving self, or even of Brazil growing up?
Returning home, Boy finds a blighted landscape and desolation in the flapping of a shutter and the lonely tinkle of a wind chime. His childhood idyll is gone, but as in any fable, there will always be hope for those who plant a seed, or create a marching band from trash-heap detritus — or who imagine a radiant rainbow phoenix rising from the ashes of destruction.