The animation in the Academy Award-nominated “Boy and the World” was created with colored pencil, paint and photo collage. (GKIDS)

The dark horse in the animated-feature Academy Awards race, “Boy and the World,” by Brazilian filmmaker Alê Abreu, looks and sounds nothing like its competition. Hand-drawn using a mixture of colored pencil, photo collage and paint — and seemingly pulling inspiration from the character stylings of cartoonist Saul Steinberg — it’s the story of a small boy who discovers the big world when he goes in search of his migrant-worker father. Set to a jazzy score by Ruben Feffer and Gustavo Kurlat, “Boy and the World” tells its story — at times wondrously, but also sometimes with an awe approaching uneasiness — wordlessly. The dialogue, if that’s the right word, is gibberish that sounds like Portuguese played backwards.

It is, without a doubt, the most purely visual of the Oscar-nominated animated films, despite a hero whose face resembles little more than an oversize shirt button with two long, slit-like holes for eyes.

That we see the world through those eyes — everything from a rainbow-colored pebble to the factories that mill cotton fabric for shirts that are shipped to customers around the world — only adds to the sense of amazement and bewilderment that the film inspires. It also contains a critique of environmental degradation, income inequity and globalization, in an approach that is at once subtler and more powerful than similar mainstream children’s films (“Norm of the North” and “The Lorax,” to name two).

The frequently surreal plot takes no pains to avoid alarming younger viewers (or even their parents) who might be dismayed to see a protagonist of tender age wandering around without supervision, as he stays with a series of kindly strangers in a migrant camp, and later in a squalid but beautifully rendered favela, or slum.

Put another way, the make-believe world of “Boy and the World” is confusing, scary and gorgeous. But then again, so is the real one.

PG. At area theaters. Contains some unsettling themes and images. 80 minutes.