Courtesy of the New York Times

January 28, 2016

With No Language, Boy Speaks Volumes

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In his novel What Maisie Knew, Henry James instructs us that “small children have many more perceptions than they have terms to translate them; their vision is at any moment much richer, their apprehension even constantly stronger than their at all producible vocabulary.” Perhaps this is why our protagonist is clamped silent; he can’t possibly describe his adventures traveling from familial, rural hills to a bustling metropolis in Brazil. From the cotton fields in the country through the cranes and construction of the city, not a single word is uttered.

To be sure, Boy and the World is not a silent film, but rather a film that uses unconventional, non-linguistic methods to characterize. Directed, animated and written by Alê Abreu, this 80 minute movie astounds viewers with its ability to communicate a young boy’s feelings about his father’s departure from their family home without featuring any coherent language system. Viewers can only glean understanding of the allegory by focusing on the sharp, fleeting images and by gauging the dynamics of the movie’s instrumental score. At first, the form is jarring. Are the characters going to speak at all? Who even are these characters to begin with? We are never officially introduced to them, just invited to their narrative in media res, and thereby we become disoriented.

Even more jolting is the nonlinear advancement of plot. When we first meet the titular boy, he is playing in a field. He then says goodbye to his father and goes to sleep. Once he awakens, we find him in a cart that resembles a train boxcar, led by a random man we have never seen before. Is he dreaming at this point? Abreu’s fascination with blending surrealism and realism sometimes makes it difficult to discern what is actually occurring. Who is this man leading the boy? His uncle? A stranger? Is he hitchhiking a boxcar ride? Why is his mom letting him wander off with a bizarre man? Questions abound and the one answer we’re left with is that Boy and the World is meant to evoke a visceral, physical reaction, maybe even more so than a logical, intellectual one. I didn’t feel as though I was watching this movie; I felt like I was in it.

This is in part due to Abreu’s animation, which is at once comprised of kaleidoscopic computer-generated images and hand-drawn pictures reminiscent of kids’ scribbles. Abreu attempts and succeeds at getting us to see the world through the boy’s eyes with the accelerated pace and rushed, childlike dimensions of his drawings. Find a macaroni and cheese or burnt sienna Crayola crayon and you can likely recreate the majority of the animation in Boy and the World. Most of the images are so rudimentary that anyone who attempts to draw them will deceptively believe they too can be animators with their newfound talent. The main character, for instance, is nothing more than a stick figure. With black ovals for eyes, three tufts of hair and a striped T-shirt, he is startlingly easy to construct, even for those of us who were once yelled at for not coloring inside the lines. Think Harold and the Purple Crayon.

However primitive the animation may be, it is formidable that a whole political saga can be told through these visuals. According to Abreu, he was in the midst of working on a documentary about the colonial history of Latin America when the idea for Boy and the World struck. He found a scribble of the boy in one of his sketchbooks and was inspired to tell his story using his naivete as a lens to view the issues of globalization in Brazil. The boy sees his story as narrow; for him there is only one goal: finding his father. For viewers, the story acquires cautionary connotations about inequality, fractionalized political and economic states and violence. Abreu criticizes a consumerist society that is focused on expensive shoes and Brazilian soccer when there are sick migrant workers begging their bosses to work for measly wages. When the animation is interrupted by a minute-long live-action sequence with photographs from calamitous areas of Brazil, the warnings of this modern day fable are only reaffirmed.

A contender for the 2016 Academy Awards, Boy and the World is an exercise in the power of selective minimalism and in the evolution of art forms. Not only does it allay our fears that the technology of the big animation companies will overtake human animation, it shows us that a dearth of dialogue can be more revelatory than an outpouring of speech.

Boy and the World will be playing Saturday, January 30 and Sunday, January 31 at Cornell Cinema. More information can be found at

Gwendolyn Aviles is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected]