The new Brazilian animated film tells the story of a young boy and his friends trying to save their land from a fear epidemic
The protagonist of Tito and the Birds lives in a world wracked by fear. In that, he’s not too much different from many people today, trying to survive in a world that seems to make less sense every day. But the film — directed by Gustavo Steinberg, Gabriel Bitar, and André Catoto — is also a specifically a product of Brazil, a country that has been dealing with its own epidemic of fear and paranoia lately. But Tito differs from us because in his world, this kind of paranoia manifests as an actual physical ailment that slowly transforms people into ashen ball shapes in a way that is both cute and tragic at the same time. The strength of Tito and the Birds lies in its imaginative touches like this and overall visual aesthetic, which mixes various painting and animating styles into a beautiful fusion, but the actual storytelling leaves a little depth to be desired.
The film follows 10-year-old Tito, whose parents fall on either side of the spectrum of reactions to the fear epidemic. His mother watches TV all day, and thus gets her confidence and state of mind slowly eroded by the demagogic pundit Alaor Souza, who tells anyone who will listen that they should be afraid, and very afraid at that. On the other hand, Tito’s father, Dr. Rufus, is a scientist who believes the epidemic can be beaten if only humans could understand the language of birds. He builds a machine to accomplish this, but when the machine goes haywire, the mom kicks him out of the house for fear he’s endangering Tito. But the real danger arrives once Dr. Rufus is off the job. Souza’s paranoid ramblings grow increasingly popular, while more and more people start getting transformed into gray fear balls by the plague. Tito sets out with his fellow students to find his father, understand the language of birds, and save their society from fear before it’s too late.
Like the United States, Brazil was once a slave society, and its current social structure still bears the scars of division and inequality. The right-wing politician Jair Bolsonaro was recently able to capitalize on these divisions and win the Brazilian presidency on a platform of unapologetic homophobia and proposed genocide of the country’s indigenous tribes, among other things. The directors couldn’t have known what would come to pass in Brazilian politics when they started working on this film in 2011, but clearly, their heads were in the right place. They even drew from the German expressionists of the early 20th century, artists who were also working in the shadow of fascism. As with many works of German expressionism, though, Tito and the Birds’ political allegory is not totally clear, and some avenues of its world remain unexplored. Viewers may be surprised to find that, despite the title, there aren’t actually that many birds to watch in the movie.
As the previous paragraph probably attests, Tito and the Birds’ serious tone probably won’t appeal to many American kids, but its beautiful art should resonate with any fan of animation. Like the Oscar-nominated Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, Tito and the Birds combines different art styles in a way that demonstrates the radical possibilities of animated storytelling. By combining photographs of oil-paint brushstrokes and digital painting techniques, the film takes on the appearance of a children’s storybook. It’s a storybook with an edge (thanks to every character’s wide, fearful eyes, straight out of ’20s Berlin art), but also takes optimistic relish in telling the story of various children from all rungs of the Brazilian social hierarchy learning how to live with and for each other. Maybe that’s the thing that can save us from fear.