It’s hardly a novel idea for animated films to include hidden political messages, but few are as overtly topical as “Tito and the Birds.” Though its story takes place in Brazil, American viewers will particularly identify with its allegory for the contagious affliction of fear. Foreseeing the great sociopolitical divide in modern American society, directors Gabriel Bitar, André Catoto and Gustavo Steinberg have crafted a strikingly relevant tale for 2018.

“Tito and the Birds” takes us on a journey with its eponymous hero Tito, a 10-year old boy with a special bond with his inventor father. Their latest interest is an unusual machine that allows humans to communicate with birds. But things go awry when the machine explodes and injures Tito in the process. Confirming the skepticism of Tito’s protective mother, she bans any further experimentation in the house, and Tito’s father goes into exile.

Meanwhile, Tito’s world faces an even greater danger, as a mysterious illness is spreading across the globe. According to the media and the propagandist warnings of a wealthy businessman, fear is the cause and can only be stopped by isolation. But Tito remembers his father’s own teachings about the dangers of fear, and he soon realizes that his father’s unfinished work may hold the secret to the real cure.

From the moment you hear the first notes of Gustavo Kurlat and Ruben Feffer’s epic score, you know you’re in for a great adventure. But the urgency of this narrative is more profound than the typical heroics of an animated film. Hateful psychology is just as harmful as the main villain, with equally devastating effects.

Indeed, the sickness manifests itself in genuinely terrifying ways – bulging eyes, shrinking limbs – and is depicted with suitably grotesque hand-drawn animation. Furthermore, the teams of hazmat-outfitted exterminators are just as imposing. Towering over Tito and his fellow children, they effectively create an unsettling atmosphere as they spray green clouds of chemicals.

Set against the backdrop of expressionistic painted environments, this somewhat unpolished character design makes for a compelling clash of styles with the beautiful brush strokes and splashes of color around them. And the artistry of the animation further accentuates the storyline’s increasingly inspired concepts. Even as Tito’s mission leads him into more predictable territory, there’s an almost esoteric quality to the bird subplot, which eschews clichéd anthropomorphism for poignant metaphor.

Tito and the Birds” will surely delight younger audiences with its high-flying hijinks. But what makes it stand out among this year’s animated films is the underlying philosophical themes which will spur conversations with adults. There’s certainly no mistaking the Trump-like similarities of the unscrupulous villain and his fear-mongering rhetoric. Hopefully, viewers of all ages will learn the lesson of “Tito and the Birds.” When faced with the fear of the unknown “other,” let courage and empathy guide the way. And maybe even a pigeon or two.

“Tito and the Birds” is coming soon to select theaters.

GRADE: (★★★)