Ireland’s Cartoon Saloon has already given us two striking animated features that use simple and beautiful images to recount compelling stories aimed at adults as well as youngsters. The same is true for the studio’s latest offering, “The Breadwinner,” about an Afghan girl who disguises herself to help her family survive the harsh strictures of Taliban rule.
The movie is based on an award-winning novel for young people by Deborah Ellis that went through numerous editions and led to several sequels. It’s a tale of empowerment about 11-year-old Parvana, who cuts her hair and dresses as a boy so she can work and buy food for her mother and two siblings, an impossibility for a girl under the fundamentalists who control every aspect of life in Kabul in 2001.
Parvana (voice of Saara Chaudry) also has another mission — to find out what’s become of her father, a kind and loving man who entertains his family with stories (also forbidden) and who is no friend of the Taliban. Early in the film, he is arrested for spurious reasons and hauled away to prison. Her remaining family — a frail mother, an older sister, with whom Parvana sometimes quibbles, and an infant brother — are on the verge of starvation.
The film’s director, Nora Twomey, also worked on the earlier Cartoon Saloon features, “The Secret of Kells” (2009) and “Song of the Sea” (2014), both nominated for Oscars. “The Breadwinner’s” style is somewhat more naturalistic than its predecessors, which use less austere colors. But the new film is also notable in employing a second style, which is digital but designed to resemble traditional cutout animation.
That second style is restricted to the fantastic stories that Parvana tells her little brother, to soothe and distract him. Though early in the movie Parvana expresses skepticism about the value of telling tales, she comes to see their value as she recounts, in several episodes, a fable about a scary Elephant King and the courageous boy who defies him.
What Parvana learns is the amazing level of freedom — and to be sure, it’s relative freedom — enjoyed by males under extreme patriarchal rule (it’s no surprise that the movie is executive produced by Angelina Jolie). With no adult males around, an impoverished family is in serious trouble.
And the film is honest enough not to exaggerate the beneficial results of Parvana’s courageous act. She does provide for her family, and finally makes it to the prison where her father is incarcerated, but these victories, while real, are small ones in a totalitarian society.
Starring voices of Saara Chaudry and Soma Chhaya. Directed by Nora Twomey.
Rated PG-13 for thematic material including some violent images. Check listings for theaters. 1 hour, 34 minutes.
Bottom line: A tale of empowerment that doesn’t exaggerate