"This is the story of how fear contaminated the world.”
The Brazilian animated family film ‘Tito and the Birds’ is set in a grim dystopia where fearmongering news broadcasts and a megalomaniacal TV personality spread xenophobic propaganda. Donald Tru... I mean, 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 undesirable people, pests and birds.
Growing up in this world of increasing paranoia and unhappiness is Tito (Pedro Henrique), a big-hearted, bright and brave child who is guided by the words of his absent scientist father, Rufus (Matheus Nachtergaele).
Rufus, desperate to facilitate a line of communication with birds to reawaken their storied past of warning humanity about impending catastrophe, had invented a volatile machine in his home. His television-fixated wife Rosa (Denise Fraga) proved to be an easy target for Souza’s brainwashing. So, when an accident with the invention ultimately lands the boy in the hospital (Rosa exclaims: “Tito, your father made that machine explode on you!”), Rufus decides to leave to continue his experiments from a safer distance. “The birds will help us,” his father promises. Tito blames himself for not pulling a lever as Rufus asked and vows never to be scared again.
Fast-forward three years later: the unjustified hysterics of the profiteering media celebrity have caused The Outbreak: people suffering enough fear are mutated into rock-like gnomes, their eyes bugging out and limbs retracting until they can do nothing but silently stare and blink (a Roald Dahl-style concept with ‘South Park’ visuals). The worse this disease gets, the more attractive Souza’s Dome Garden becomes as a sanctuary. He goes on TV and demands the removal of the infected from the streets. He gives elites buying preference and ostensibly seeks to create a new homogenised oasis while the rabble is left to die.
Tito, who has been trying to improve his father’s birdsong invention, is suddenly mankind's best hope. With his courageous friend Sara (Marina Serretiello) and the silent but lovable Buiú by his side, he asks Alaor’s son Teo (Enrico Cardoso) for help. A race against time ensues as the infection tears through the town, transforming poor and rich alike. The pigeons might be able to supply a cure if only someone finds a way to convince them to do so, even if it means transferring his/her consciousness into one of the birds.
Created using oil paintings, digital drawings and graphic animation, ‘Tito and the Birds’ has a distinctive presentation that bleeds into the surreal. Rather than the hard lines of hand-drawn animation or a three-dimensional look, the film feels like a painting come alive. Tito and his friends are composed of swashes of colour - crude, bright two-dimensional characters on oil-painted backgrounds with expressionist brush strokes adding atmosphere and motion. Buildings, plant life and skies are made of a vibrant palette of colourful streaks, a touch which feels both thoughtful and spontaneous.
Besides its unique animation style, ‘Tito and the Birds’ also clocks in at a lean 73-minutes, which means there is zero flab on the storyline and everyone has a role to play, whether it’s a crazy bird lady on the bus or the twin troublemakers Teo keeps close by as personal bodyguards. A sense of imagination is at play that is reminiscent of Pixar at its most whimsical (Peter Docter’s ‘Up’ springs to mind).
There’s a little science fiction, a lot of fantasy, and a potent allegory for how we’ve forgotten that our main strength as a species is our ability to feel empathy and compassion for one another. Just like Issa López did with ‘Tigers Are Not Afraid’, directors Gabriel Bitar, André Catoto and Gustavo Steinberg have crafted ‘Tito and the Birds’ as a powerful metaphor that utilises reality’s horrors to drive home a point too many have resigned themselves into ignoring.
Created using oil paintings, digital drawings, and graphic animation, ‘Tito and the Birds’ has a distinctive presentation that bleeds into surreal. Rather than the hard lines of hand-drawn animation or a three-dimensional look, the film feels like a painting come alive.
In a 2007 speech entitled 'Be Afraid', Australian psychologist, sociologist and social researcher Hugh Mackay said: “Fear is a complex emotion, but it comes in two main forms. There's anticipatory fear where we perceive a threat, know what to do about it, and take the necessary evasive action. That happens when you see a dangerous situation looming on the road, or someone threatens you with violence. Then there's inhibitory fear, where the threat is too great, too amorphous or too appalling for us to know how to deal with it. Because there's no way to discharge the fear through action, we are inhibited rather than energised. The term 'paralysed by fear' is a good description of inhibitory fear at work.”
Mackay went on:
“It's no wonder we are afraid and unfocused in our fear. We're jumpy about everything because we can't quite get a handle on what is going on, what will happen next, or even what should happen next.”
And that's the point. Media and politicians engage in fearmongering with the public at every opportunity, and yet the safety mechanisms - the essential responses - are of no interest them. Indeed, quite often after the public have been told how serious the risk is (in the case of ‘Tito and the Birds’, that they will convulse and shrink until they become fleshy spheres), they are then told to go about their lives as normal.
The characterisation of Souza may make the film’s political commentary feel distinctly tied to Donald Trump (although the film has been in development since 2010), but the broader message of the film has a timeless relevance that isn’t relegated to a single country. In Australia, it’s the fear of Muslims and immigrants. In Brazil, it’s the fear of the economic crisis and violence. Many nations around the world are beholden to state-sanctioned news sources feeding a skewed truth and their own alarmism, with their own enemies painted as scapegoats to divert attention from themselves. Fear wins support for things, like Souza’s Dome Garden or (in the real world) anti-immigration and anti-terrorism laws, no matter how much they infringe on civil liberties. Fear is currency.
But just as the internet and social media helps to fan the flames of such divisively dangerous rhetoric, the flocking together of a few like minds also provides avenues with which to fight back.
With a script that is as richly textured as the artwork, ‘Tito and the Birds’ is a moving and human story that boasts a big heart and reminds us that we aren’t alone in the troubles we face.