The more animation you watch, the clearer it becomes that only a few titles deliver something original in terms of both visuals and storytelling. Tito and the Birds is one such rarity. Hailing from Brazilian filmmakers Gustavo Steinberg, Gabriel Bitar, and André Catoto, this beautifully animated tale has definitely earned its Annie Award nomination for Best Animated Independent Feature, alongside two of my other favorites of the year: MFKZ and Mirai. And with Shout! Studios releasing Tito and the Birds in an Oscar-qualifying run starting today–with a wide theatrical rollout in early 2019–audiences everywhere will get a chance to experience this one-of-a-kind tale.
In Tito and the Birds, the title character is a shy 10-year-old boy who lives with his mother in a dystopian Brazil. When an unusual epidemic starts to spread, one that makes people sick whenever they get scared, Tito soon discovers that a possible cure may be related to his missing father’s research on bird song. Tito’s search for the antidote becomes a quest to save his friends and family, find his missing father and to discover his own identity. There may be a little bit of story lost in translation for English audiences, but Tito and the Birds is awards-worthy for its visual flair alone.
To get an idea of the film’s unique visual style, take a look at the trailer, followed by my review:
The first thing that grabs you when watching Tito and the Birds is its visual approach to storytelling. In a sea of computer-generated sameness when it comes to animated films, this love letter to expressionist art pulls a number of brushes from the artists’ repertoire: oil paintings, digital drawings, and animated graphics deliver a moving portrait that’s as beautiful as it is relevant to the story and its telling. Tito and the Birds simply would not be the same film if it were done in traditional hand-drawn 2D animation, water color, or 3D CG. There’s a warmth and a liveliness to this style that gives the movie a sense of motion, tension, and, perhaps most interesting, impermanence.
The best visual example of this approach is on display when Tito and the Birds portrays the effects that the fear-driven epidemic has upon the population. While I highly suggest you watch this movie for yourselves to see how the story plays out, it’s worth mentioning the transformative nature of this “fear toxin.” It essentially reduces people into limbless lumps, immovable rock-like blobs who have become so paralyzed by their own fear that they’ve become unable to move, act, or even communicate. It’s the best visual metaphor of the movie, but not the only one; not by a long shot.
Tito and the Birds may leave some audience members a bit confused as to what Tito’s scientist father’s bird research and the local pigeon population have to do with the epidemic and its cure, especially since the ultimate conclusion is a thoughtful one, albeit a little thin on the particulars; I’m still scratching my head over it. But the real joy in this movie is in watching the story of Tito and his relationships with friends, family, and antagonists unfold. There’s Tito’s friends: the tough and fearless Sarah, the homely but humble Buiú, and the uppity but ultimately helpful rich kid Teo and his lackeys, The Tricksters. There’s also Tito’s family: His caring but estranged father Rufus whose research paves the way to a cure, and his mother, a fearful and worrisome woman whose anxieties prove too much for her to handle. And then there’s the media mogul antagonist Alaor Souza, who manages to turn this fear toxin into a powerful weapon and a lucrative opportunity.
The story’s many-layered thematic elements are universal: the fluid bonds of friendship, especially in youth; the sacrificial nature of friendship, familial relationships, and of one’s self for a greater good; and the complicated minefield that is adolescence. However, Tito and the Birds also feels incredibly timely and relevant, especially as fear seems to be a pervasive force, not just in any specific country but around the world. This fear is molded, inflamed, and harnessed by the powers that be in order to control the wider population toward whatever ends they want; in short, it’s fear become weaponized. Tito and the Birds gets that idea across very well in what is, in my opinion, the best execution of weaponized fear in an animated “kids movie” since 1982’s The Plague Dogs. And I’m happy to say it ends on a much more hopeful note with a spirit and intention the world needs right now.
Should Tito and the Birds find its way into a theater near you, I highly recommend checking out the visually unique, artistically beautiful, and odd but relevant story that this movie has to offer.
Tito and the Birds will open in New York on January 25, 2019 at Quad Cinema, followed by a wider rollout in major U.S. cities starting February 1, 2019.