Tito and the Birds
Brazilian cartoon paints a dark picture
Tito and the Birds (2019)
Directed by Gustavo Steinberg, Gabriel Bitar & André Catoto
Cast: Pedro Henrique, Marina Serretiello, Matheus Solano
Fantasy is often used to address real-world concerns. And animation has long been employed by the film industry to candy-coat difficult life lessons for younger viewers. Rarely have those techniques been pushed to the limit as much as in the Brazilian-born animated feature Tito and the Birds. The film unabashedly rips its inspiration from today’s headlines, producing a dark, deeply expressionistic fairy tale for modern audiences. What seems, on the surface, like an imaginative sci-fi fantasy aimed at kids is actually a moody fable speaking just as loudly to adults about today’s contentious political landscape.
“Fear is contagious,” speculates 10-year-old protagonist Tito Rufus (voiced by Pedro Henrique) at the start of the film. It’s a grim philosophy handed down by his father. The senior Mr. Rufus was a crackpot scientist who believed he could talk to birds and spent years laboring over a machine to accomplish that far-fetched goal. Dad didn’t simply want to chat with them about worms, either. He believed that, since the dawn of man, birds have served as harbingers of doom—warning mankind about earthquakes, fires and wars. He was convinced that if he could communicate with our feathered friends, he could save humanity.
But an accident in dad’s laboratory led to an explosion. Fearing for her son’s safety, Tito’s mom Rosa (Denise Fraga) kicked dad out and began watching over Tito like an overprotective mother hen. Several years down the line, shy but brainy school kid Tito is missing his beloved father and following closely in his scientific footsteps. With the help of his outcast friends Buiu and Sarah, Tito has recreated his father’s bird-communicating machine. But yet another accident at the school science fair gets Tito kicked out of school—much to the delight of his academic rival, rich-kid inventor Teo.
Adding to an already outlandish narrative is the fact that Teo’s dad, Alaor Souza, is a right-wing television personality, stoking fears on his bombastic nightly news program. He’s also offering (for a tidy price) the perfect solution to all of today’s worries—the ultimate gated community, a luxury neighborhood hermetically sealed off from the rest of the world under a glass dome. Souza’s timing couldn’t be better, for the world is under the grip of a bizarre plague known simply as “The Outbreak.” The Outbreak is a fear-based disease that causes people to devolve into immobile, limbless lumps of rock.
Naturally, Tito believes his father’s invention is the key to saving mankind. But can he and his friends convince people in time?
The plot of Tito and the Birds—a 10-year-old inventor tries to convince pigeons to save the human race from a contagious fear virus—is a hard pill to swallow. And the film’s central message—about the media stoking fear and paranoia for its own cynical gain—isn’t what you’d call subtle. Still, this unfettered flight of fancy emerges as a dystopic delight thanks to its imaginative animation.
Much of the film—particularly the backgrounds—are rendered in the thick, shadowy impasto of traditional oil paints. The Oscar-nominated 2017 film Loving Vincent employed a similar, art-heavy, multimedia style. Vivid colors, distorted perspectives, sharp angles and a swirling, sweeping camera perspective give Tito and the Birds the heightened emotional effect of an Expressionist painting—something between Kandinsky, Ralph Steadman and “South Park.”
America, it turns out, isn’t the only country to plunge into conservative paranoia these days. Brazil recently elected South America’s version of Donald Trump, far-right firebrand and self-styled political outsider Jair Bolsonaro. He got there by enflaming public fears about crime, corruption and “the other” (foreigners, homosexuals, liberals). This growing climate of paranoia is undoubtedly the inspiration behind this film’s political allegory. A lot of us, it seems, can sympathize.
The ultimate moral flying around Tito and the Birds is both simplistic and convoluted. It’s a storybook with a few too many ideas and a few too many pages missing. Despite the fact that the filmmakers hammer their point home confidently and resoundingly, not everyone will be able to stitch together the film’s flashes of political demagoguery, postcolonial guilt and fascist fearmongering. Even if kids manage to pick up on the “fear is the enemy of freedom” slogan, they may not be the best audience for this surreal journey. Adults, on the other hand, will certainly appreciate the film’s visual brio—which reads like a children’s bedtime story run through a Museum of Modern Art nightmare machine.