“Tito and the Birds” — a new film from directors Gustavo Steinberg, André Catoto and Gabriel Bitar — strikes a precise balance between two cinematic functions. The movie is dually an eccentric adventure film and a message on the ways fear can corrode society. Paired with an animation style combining digital and hand-drawn techniques, “Tito and the Birds” succeeds as both an allegory on the power of fear and as a visual achievement.
The story of “Tito and the Birds” (“Tito e os Pássaros” in its original Portuguese) is deeply eclectic — but its oddities serve well in the animated format. The film takes place in an unspecified Brazilian city. Here, we are introduced to the titular hero, Tito (voiced by Pedro Henrique), a shy boy whose face is persistently tucked in the folds of his hoodie. Tito is bright but haunted by the memory of his father (Matheus Nachtergaele), a scientist who left the family because of an experiment gone wrong. Tito tries to fill the gap left by his father by attempting to recreate a machine to communicate with pigeons that his dad had begun.
Tito’s life, however, takes a turn when an insidious epidemic hits his city. The outbreak is a strange one with no known cure, manifesting when someone becomes afraid. This spark of fear catalyzes a process that turns the afflicted into a rocklike blob, immobile and unable to speak. As more and more people feel the fear of the outbreak, the epidemic feeds itself until much of the city is rendered into blobs.
Tito and his friends Sarah (Marina Serretiello) and Buiú (Vinicius Garcia) try to find a cure as, one by one, their community members succumb to the outbreak. As they come closer to discovering the source of the outbreak, the “free and rejected” pigeons that populate the skies of the city become unlikely allies to the children.
This film could have easily turned into a simple quest-driven narrative with flourishes of the fantastical. But “Tito and the Birds” succeeds at imbuing the central character’s mission with greater depth. As the story unfolds and the mysteries of the epidemic are revealed, we see that Tito’s home is one ravaged by divisiveness. Every day on the television, an evil corporate overlord stokes fear in the city residents with reports of crime and other changes meant to frighten. Later, we find that this incendiary figure aims to move everyone into the Dome Garden — a privately guarded, sanctioned off community for those afraid of others.
This allegory is particularly prescient in today’s climate, since Brazil just elected a far-right president who ran on a campaign of divisiveness. In light of these developments, “Tito and the Birds” comes off as a topical commentary, a fantastical refraction of the forces manifesting fear in real time.
Drawing comparisons to 2017’s “Loving Vincent,” and 2018’s “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” — two other films that have recently challenged the status quo of animated technique — “Tito and the Birds” is also remarkable for its style of animation, an amalgamation of oil paintings and digital illustrations. Every frame features some painted aspect, pulsing with movement and a warmth that permeates the scenes even as the plot turns grim. The visible strokes onscreen lend a life to scenery and characters that is often lost in other animated films CGI-ed into sterile oblivion. Rather than commit to a standardized, Pixar-esque visual formula, the careful brushstrokes are a reminder of the intense craftwork of animation. And they are simply fun to look at.
Some of the film’s most striking scenes come from the way this style of animation communicates movement — both in the sense of scenery as well as in the physicality of its characters. The dynamism of the character design is particularly visible in those affected by the outbreak, who take on dark undereye circles and a nervous, fearful gait. The film does not depend on any sort of cutesiness, which meshes well with the often heavy subject matter.
“Tito and the Birds” isn’t necessarily a heartwarming film but it’s one with an important message to tell. Coupled with its beautiful animation, it is an engrossing dive into a scary world made less scary by those who are willing to challenge the forces stoking fear.
Camryn Bell covers film and television. Contact her at [email protected].