Fear can act as a sickness, making us quake and quiver before falling petrified and useless. Fear can spread like a virus, contaminating whole communities, pitting people against each other and the wider world. In the Brazilian animated film, Tito and the Birds, this simile is made literal as an eye-catching and important parable for kids.
Directed by Gabriel Bitar, André Catoto and Gustavo Steinberg, Tito and the Birds is set in a grim dystopia where fearmongering news broadcasts and a megalomaniacal TV personality/real estate developer spread xenophobic propaganda. Alaor Souza (voiced by Matheus Solano) is scaring grown-ups in an effort to urge them to buy homes in his next-level gated community, Dome Garden, which includes a sky-high dome that keeps out unwanted people, pests, and birds. Growing up in this world of increasing paranoia and panic is 10-year-old Tito (Pedro Henrique), a big-hearted, bright and brave inventor who is guided by the words of his absent father Rufus (Matheus Nachtergaele).
Before vanishing abruptly, his father warned Tito about how fear can be contagious and dangerous. He also shared his belief that birds have the power to predict disaster. Which is why Rufus dedicates himself to creating a machine that could translate what birds are saying. A school science fair gives Tito the chance to recreate his father’s experiment, in an earnest bid to reconnect with his MIA dad. But Tito’s real chance to become a hero arises once the Outbreak occurs. All around him, friends, classmates, and neighbors fall prey to a sinister sickness that transforms people, twisting their flesh into ghastly lumps of stones with bulging eyes. And it’s up to Tito, his machine, his friends, and the birds to rescue the world from the paralyzing grip of fear.
As you might guess, the story gets a bit convoluted. There’s a sprawling cast of characters, three different versions of the McGuffin machine, mythos about birds as guides, and a B plot about Souza’s corrupt manipulations of people in power. Nonetheless, I admired the big swing of taking on so much in one family friendly movie. Sure, the mythos is a bit rushed, but it’s engaging. The characters–while often thinly sketched–each bring color. And the details of Souza may make its political commentary feel distinctly tied to Trump, it’s easy to imagine the broader message of the film having a timeless relevance. Because even amid its overly ambitious plotting, Tito and the Birds sings out a simple message: Fear must be fought with reason and compassion.
Kids will cling to Tito and his friends, the spunky Sarah and the silent but lovable Buiú. Their energy is invigorating, their shenanigans fun. And while the more mature themes may be lost on them, the inspirational narrative of how a motley crew of kids banded together to save the day won’t be. But the best bit of Tito and The Birds is its aesthetic.
Created using oil paintings, digital drawings, and graphic animation,Tito and The Birds has a distinctive look that bleeds into surreal. Rather than the hard lines of hand-drawn animation or the three-dimensional look common in CG cartoons, Bitar, Catoto and Steinberg have crafted a style that feels like a painting come alive. Tito and his friends are made of swashes of color. Their world constructed of Expressionist brush strokes. Buildings, plant life, and skies made of streaks feel both thoughtful and spontaneous. Sprays of ominous gas are formed by globs of paint, adding an extra layer of uneasiness to their presence. And all of this builds to a climax absolutely radiant in color and expression, proudly displaying what wonders can be found in taking risks in style.
All this gives a literal texture that teases our minds and entices our eyes. By breaking from traditional looks, Tito and The Birds suggests that it won’t play by the rules of the cartoons you’ve seen before. Thus, there’s an intoxicating excitement as the safety net of familiarity is gleefully stripped away. But worry not–or perhaps lament–Tito and The Birds won’t do anything so risky that it’s unsuitable for kiddos. It plays it very safe in the end. Its risks are in its muchness, but never in its turns. Still, all told, Tito and The Birds is a moving and magical adventure that boasts a big heart, laudable message, and extraordinary splendor.
Kristy Puchko (@KristyPuchko) is a New York-based film critic and entertainment journalist, her work has appeared in Vanity Fair, IndieWire, Nerdist, and Pajiba (to name a few). Ms. Puchko is a regular contributor on the Slashfilmcast, and teaches a course on film criticism at FIT. To see more of her work, visit DecadentCriminals.com