On the basis of Song of the Sea and Secret of Kells, Cartoon Saloon have already established themselves as one of the most innovative new voices in modern animation. With Nora Twomney’s The Breadwinner though, the Irish studio have produced their best film yet, proving themselves to be more than worthy of being mentioned in the same breath as Pixar, and possibly even Studio Ghibli.
The story follows a young girl named Parvana as she attempts to provide for her all-female family on the streets of Kabul after the imprisonment of her father, set against the heavily patriarchal backdrop of Afghan society. Possibly the most impressive thing about this film is the way in which this grim-on-paper story is presented so beautifully, to the point of almost appearing whimsical in tone. There are dark moments of course, but they are counterbalanced by Parvana’s love for her family, along with the illustrations of the stories she tells to her younger siblings.
The horrors of war in The Breadwinner are rarely portrayed as atrocities, but instead as part of the everyday, to the extent that they almost feel mundane. This of course only makes their impact more keenly felt in the moments their consequences begin to seep into the plot of the film to directly affect the characters. This gives the film very clearly defined stakes, ensuring that several moments in the film hit particularly hard, with a few scenes standing out as particularly difficult to watch.
The Breadwinner is concerned with more than just the realities of conflict though; the film also presents a story about stories, and the important cultural place they hold. The switch to a more vibrant animation style in the colourful vignettes relaying Parvana’s fairy-tale compliment the muted – but still outstanding – animation of her everyday life. It is no coincidence that the family’s father is taken away just as he is about to read them a story, with the violence of the outside world intruding on the wonder of the make-believe. Storytelling here provides the characters with a shelter from the world around them and an essential part of their day-to-day lives.
The result is an impressive feat; although not as overtly distressing as, say, Grave of the Fireflies, the events depicted in The Breadwinner are just dangerous enough for the film to avoid any accusations of sanitising the realities of the world. The story tightrope-walks its tone between gritty and charming all the way up to its ending, ensuring that the wrap-up isn’t so twee as to undo the previous 90 minutes, but not so harrowing as to simply come across as depressing. The result is possibly the best animated film of the year so far, one which deserved far more attention than it got around Oscar season when it was nominated for Best Animated Feature.
Words by Adam Wells