In its power and its beauty, “The Breadwinner” reminds us that animation can be every bit as much of a medium for adults as it is for children.
Set in Afghanistan’s capital city of Kabul in 2001, the waning days of Taliban rule, “The Breadwinner” does have an 11-year-old girl as its protagonist, but that is the only childish thing about it.
Rather, “The Breadwinner” is unexpectedly tough-minded in its depiction of the harsh excesses of life under the Taliban, detailing the reign of terror that resulted from civil society being under the thumb of arrogant religious police.
Though director Nora Twomey’s name may not be well known, devotees of animation will be more than familiar with her background and her credits. Along with Tomm Moore and Paul Young, Twomey founded the Kilkenny, Ireland-based Cartoon Saloon, and was a key player in the group’s pair of brilliant, Oscar-nominated features, “The Secret of Kells” and “Song of the Sea.”
Though it’s set in dusty Kabul and not emerald Ireland, “Breadwinner” shares with its predecessors a vivid sense of a very specific culture as well as a gift for strikingly beautiful visuals.
Kabul may not sound like a likely site for luminous images, but Twomey and her team, led by art directors Reza Riahi and Ciaran Duffy, show us a city of captivating sandstone-hued houses where colorful flowers and teeming markets come to bright and convincing life.
Working from the young-adult novel by Deborah Ellis, screenwriter Anita Doron introduces us to intrepid Parvana (voiced by Saara Chaudry), a young girl who does not like to be told what she can’t do.
Parvana is encountered sitting on the ground with her father, Nurullah (Ali Badshah), in front of a small space in the Kabul bazaar where they are selling some of their few remaining possessions so that their family can buy food.
A master storyteller who fills in Parvana (and the audience) on Afghanistan’s troubled past, Nurulluh believes deeply that “stories remain in our hearts when all else is gone,” though Parvana, at least initially, remains skeptical as to their value.
The father and daughter are suddenly confronted by two aggressive members of the Taliban who back off only when Nurullah demonstrates that he is an army veteran who has paid a steep price for his service.
Back home, mother Fattema (Laara Sadiq) and older sister Soraya (Shaista Latif) worry about the fate of the family, which includes a young toddler, but things are about to get worse.
The Taliban track Nurullah down to his house and roughly arrest him for no apparent reason, carting him off to a grim prison at the edge of town. Because of the oppressive, misogynistic nature of Taliban rule, that situation puts the family in a terrible position.
Women are not allowed on the streets without male guardians, and store owners will not sell to unaccompanied females.
When Fattema defies this ban and goes out in an attempt to visit her husband and see what his situation is, things get even uglier. She is savagely beaten by a Taliban operative and barely makes it home.
With the family’s very survival at stake, Parvana takes the extreme step of cutting off her hair, donning clothes belonging to a brother who has died, and going out into the world to become the breadwinner of the title.
Collaborating with Shauzia (Soma Chhaya), a friend from school who has done the same thing, the two girls discover that “when you are a boy you can go anywhere you like.” But even with that advantage, with the Taliban in charge life is never anything but precarious.
Intercut with this realistic present-day narrative, “Breadwinner” shows us a story Parvana is telling her toddler brother, a fable, shown in playful, cutout animation, concerning a boy who takes on an evil Elephant King in order to save his village from starvation.
With this tale echoing the main narrative, this film is very much about the importance of story for survival. A work of striking beauty and affecting emotional heft enhanced by an Afghan-themed score by Mychael Danna & Jeff Danna, “The Breadwinner” reminds us yet again that the best of animation takes us anywhere at any time and makes us believe.
Rating: PG-13 for thematic material including some violent images
Running time: 1 hour, 33 minutes
Playing: Landmark’s Nuart, West Los Angeles