As animation has trended toward the precision that comes from working with computers, it has become refreshing to encounter throwbacks to less “perfect” styles.
The adventure plot in the Brazilian feature “Tito and the Birds,” directed by Gustavo Steinberg, Gabriel Bitar, and André Catoto, is no great shakes — it wouldn’t be out of place on a Saturday-morning cartoon — but visually, the movie leaves room for the viewer to synthesize, and to dream. Combining work in oil paint with digital artistry, the film is unafraid to let brush strokes or impasto show. It blends backgrounds and effects that look vaguely post-Impressionist with character features that suggest a demented, taffy-stretched “South Park.”
In a sense, even the movie’s subject is imagination. The plot finds the world gripped by an epidemic: A virus is paralyzing people with fear, shrinking them into blobs and eventually turning them into rocks (or so we’re told). Although it’s not clear to everyone, the disease’s spread appears to be abetted by a steady diet of news-media scaremongering. A self-interested real estate developer (voiced by Mateus Solano) is pulling the strings.
The only cure rests in the research of an eccentric scientist, Dr. Rufus (Matheus Nachtergaele), who disappears after the prologue, and whose son, Tito (Pedro Henrique), longs to carry on his father’s work with birds. This isn’t the first animated movie to suggest that our feathered friends are trying to tell us something, but it may the only movie in history to suggest there are health benefits from close interaction with street pigeons.
The movie’s pleasures are primarily visual, whether it’s in the thick swirls of paint used to suggest a fiery lab accident; the design quirks (faces with prominent overbites); or the shadowy, often inky-dark palette. “Tito and the Birds” is more macabre than the average cartoon, though it contains nothing that anyone familiar with Tim Burton or Roald Dahl couldn’t handle.
If “Tito and the Birds” falls well short of those lofty comparisons in its narrative invention — the anodyne resolution feels a few drafts short of something haunting — it also feels more timely than timeless. The film, first shown last year, arrives after Brazil’s election of a far-right president who relied on incendiary rhetoric to win. In that context, the movie’s portrait of a society paralyzed by fear packs an added punch, and its imagining of a place that has forgotten its spirit of community seems chillingly topical.