Image: © GKIDS, used here in accordance with the fair use provisions of Title 17 U.S.C., Section 107.
Many people think of animated movies as primarily children’s entertainment, but as long as the medium has existed there have been filmmakers who use the techniques of animation to address adult audiences with complex themes and topics. A recent movie from Brazil, Boy & the World, has swept numerous awards at film festivals during the past year and is a serious contender for an Oscar as one of the nominees for best animated feature at the forthcoming 88th Academy Awards on Feb. 28. The film offers stunning and imaginative visual styles that juxtapose a child’s view of the world’s beauty alongside loss and danger. It’s a vivid and heartfelt story, but its limited perspective leaves important lessons untold.
Boy & the World, directed by Alê Abreu, follows a young boy named Cuca who lives and plays in the countryside until his father leaves the family and travels to the city in search of work. Soon, Cuca decides to set out to find his father, and leaves his bucolic childhood home for a journey through increasingly complex and intimidating new places. The lack of dialogue allows the audience to see Cuca’s new world of experience with the same sense of wonder and astonishment that a child might — such as the kaleidoscope of colors in an artisan’s loom, machines that roar and shake like large animals, a parade of musicians that transforms into a soaring bird, and a crushing military presence that silences their songs of protest.
When seen from this ground-level personal perspective, different forms of hardship can seem nearly identical. An automated factory that displaces human labor can appear as cold and unfeeling as machines that pollute the land while mowing down natural resources, and a political regime that brutally stamps out dissent. The film’s first-person view doesn’t tell us the whole story, though. It’s important to take a step back to see how Cuca’s new experiences are part of larger systems that differ both in their causes and effects.
Henry Hazlitt, the author of Economics in One Lesson and many other books, explained that “The art of economics consists in looking not merely at the immediate but at the longer effects of any act or policy; it consists in tracing the consequences of that policy not merely for one group but for all groups.” In Boy & the World, Cuca is unable to see these broader consequences — and so neither does the audience.
In the mid–20th century, the economist Joseph Schumpeter popularized the phrase “creative destruction” to describe the continual process by which old modes of production are abandoned as newer, more efficient technology becomes available. For people who made a living doing things the old way, this process of change can be a crushing blow. Suddenly, skills and resources that had been reliably valuable may no longer be demanded at all. Greater efficiency, however, creates new opportunity.
When it takes fewer resources to produce the same thing, the remaining resources can be devoted to something else — turning former luxuries into today’s necessities, and allowing innovators to meet new needs and wants that were previously unimagined. The world of buggy whips and telegraphs gradually gives way to the world of self-driving cars and smartphones. None of this would be possible without creative destruction and its process of creating new forms of opportunity by abandoning the old — and all socioeconomic classes are immeasurably richer because this happens.
Despite the artistic triumphs of Boy & the World, the film’s limited view is unable to distinguish between the creative destruction of increasing automation and urbanization on one hand, and the almost purely harmful destruction of rapacious pollution and oppressive government on the other. From Cuca’s perspective, they are all frightening and disruptive in similar ways, but those of us who do understand the difference must always remind the rest of the world of their vastly different long-term consequences.
Strong protection of individual liberty, property rights, and a consistent rule of law makes it possible for people to trade and cooperate on a tremendous scale, expanding the world’s opportunity and wealth. That protection also simultaneously minimizes the death and devastation wrought by politically protected crony industries and oppressive, unaccountable government authorities. Boy & the World shows us how bleak the world can seem when circumstances are arrayed against you, but the untold message of hope is that the creative destruction of dynamic markets continually makes better circumstances possible.