If “The Breadwinner” were a live-action film, it would be virtually unbearable to watch, but as animation, it’s not only possible, but somehow inspiring to immerse oneself in this pared-down adaptation of Deborah Ellis’ well-regarded young-adult novel, about an 11-year-old girl who must step up and care for her family after the Taliban raids her home and arrests her father (hence the title). Though the heroine is a child, and the book was written for young readers, “The Breadwinner” is by no means a simple-minded kidpic; rather, it directly confronts the misogyny and chauvinism of contemporary Afghanistan, while powerfully suggesting that storytelling is both a means of coping and a solution for change.
This is hardly the first time animation has served the vital artistic purpose of rendering difficult subjects accessible: At Studio Ghibli, both Isao Takahata and Hayao Miyazaki used the medium to address difficult memories of wartime Japan — in “Grave of the Fireflies” and “The Wind Rises,” respectively — and with “The Breadwinner,” Cartoon Saloon follows their lead. As it happens, the Ireland-based studio was also responsible for producing world-class Oscar nominees “The Secret of Kells” and “Song of the Sea,” and though Nora Twomey worked on both films, “The Breadwinner” marks her solo directing debut, employing a similarly bold graphic style in its telling (“hand-drawn” via a program called TVPaint), augmented by colorful story-within-the-story interludes designed to look like stop-motion.
In June 1985, National Geographic ran a portrait of an Afghan girl on its cover, her defiant green eyes gazing outward, as if challenging readers half a world away to imagine the hardships she has faced. Executive produced by Angelina Jolie, “The Breadwinner” does precisely that, and though Twomey’s essential, empathetic look into the plight of women, young and old, in present-day Afghanistan doesn’t identify its heroine as the exact same girl, her jade-colored eyes are a certain reminder, while her spirit burns every bit as strongly.
Her name is Parvana (voiced with strength and conviction by newcomer Saara Chaudry), and she is allowed to visit Kabul’s market square only so long as she is accompanied by her father (Ali Badshah), a one-legged local teacher whose reverence for books upsets the militant young men — including one especially spiteful former student, hardly more than a child himself — who’ve since seized control of the region. Early in the film, while the family is sharing a quiet moment at home, a group of Taliban goons barge in and drag Parvana’s father away, leaving the others (ailing mother, older sister, baby brother) with no means to support themselves.
At first, Parvana ventures out by herself to collect water, but the film makes clear that even such an innocuous chore takes on an air of danger in a world where women are expected to stay home and depend on their husbands, brothers or fathers for all things. But what to do when the family has no adult males? Parvana and her mother attempt to go to the prison to visit her father, but along the way, they are stopped by the Taliban and threatened (it’s an interesting scene, in that Twomey follows Parvana’s character, turning away from the brunt of the abuse inflicted upon her mother, while ensuring that audiences understand just how dire the situation is).
Amid such oppression, Parvana makes two important discoveries: First, she realizes the power of storytelling to escape the harsh circumstances they’re facing, distracting her distressed younger brother with an extemporaneous fable about a brave boy who stands up to the so-called Elephant King. And second, she encounters a classmate, Shauzia (Soma Chhaya), who has cut her hair and assumed a boy’s identity, inspiring Parvana to do the same (while hinting at a tragic mystery involving her missing older brother, Sulayman). Now, disguised as boys, they are free to explore the city and seek work — although “free” is perhaps not the right word, considering the many restrictions still in place.
Anita Doron screenplay departs significantly from the version of Parvana’s story told in Ellis’ novel, and as simple and streamlined as the film manages to be at times, it lacks a certain dimension. For example, though several solutions exist, we’re never quite clear what Parvana’s goal is in the film: Is it to free her father? To provide for her family? To finish the Elephant King story?
Though visually interesting, the Elephant King interludes (elegantly designed in the style of cut-paper animation and rendered digitally on twos to suggest a human hand) tend to interrupt the overall flow. At a certain point, Parvana seems willing to share this parallel narrative with anyone who will listen, though the meandering fable isn’t compelling enough in its own right, and really only serves to reveal the fate of her absent older brother. Meanwhile, the principal storyline (involving her living relatives) unravels a bit toward the end, as if the project may have been rushed across the finish line.
Such minor quibbles aside, “The Breadwinner” proves nothing short of exceptional, celebrating as it does a young woman who faces adversity head-on — and who relies on her own creativity, both as a storyteller and in practical situations, to adapt to whatever obstacles she faces. Amid a palette toned down significantly from the brilliant emerald and sapphire tones of “The Secret of Kells” and “Song of the Sea,” Parvana’s green eyes seem all the more striking. Equally important to the personality of the overall film is Jeff and Mychael Danna’s stunning score, which takes its cues from the region, while capturing that essential sense of optimism that make Parvana such a remarkable heroine.