The Irish animation company Cartoon Saloon has made a name for itself with features like the impressive The Secret of Kells (2009) and perhaps even more charming Song of the Sea (2015). Their latest, The Breadwinner, marks a bit of a left turn, moving away from fantasy elements and taking on more realistic subject matter.
Based on the young adult novel by Deborah Ellis, the story is set in Afghanistan in the year 2001 and involves a young girl named Parvana (Saara Chaudry) and her family as they struggle to make ends meet. Trouble arises when a particularly nasty young member of the ruling Taliban decides to arrest Parvana’s father (Ali Badshah) and jail him for insolence. Because it is illegal for women to walk the streets without a male companion, the remaining kin find themselves without any means to survive. Parvana decides to disguise herself as a boy in order to buy food and make money as a means of survival. In the meantime, she endeavors to find out where her father has been taken.
This is much darker and heavier material for an animated film, including previous efforts from this production house. Potential viewers should note that this effort is rated PG-13 and features some disturbing events. This includes threats of violence and some very close calls for the young girl as well as a death. Frankly, it’s tense stuff that isn’t for the very young. However, this is a compelling and beautifully animated tale well worth the attention of older audiences.
As expected, the images are gorgeous. While maintaining a stylized approach, the dusty and decayed city has specific detail that make it appear authentic and real, as do the desert vistas filled with rusting, discarded tanks. Over the course of events, Parvana tells a story, relaying more information about the family and their personal trials that ends up as a form of therapy; these sequences have a blockier look reminiscent of earlier films from this animated studio. The two different looks and stories which veer from harsh reality to more fantastic elements break up the events nicely and add some visual variance to the proceedings. It all looks phenomenal.
While early sections may appear a bit on-the-nose in their attempts to decry misogyny, as the story progresses it also gains momentum. Tension is generated as Parvana attempts to make her way through areas of the city without attracting the attention of those who might recognize her, even with the new makeover. Drama is also created as war looms, putting the lead in danger of being killed by either Taliban members or bombs being dropped on the area by US fighters. Later sections of the film effectively capture the horrors facing average people affected by the battle, just trying to stay out of the way of incoming shells.
In the end, The Breadwinner is an effective and beautifully animated film that aggressively tackles more serious issues than your average cartoon. It’s admirable in its intentions and for the most part, succeeds in its lofty goals. It may not be for small children, but could serve as an inspirational tale for older children in the household.