The Breadwinner is the latest film from Kilkenny company Cartoon Saloon, who previously made the brilliant The Secret of Kells and Song of the Sea. It was nominated for Best Animated Feature at this year’s Oscars losing out to Pixar’s Coco, presumably because not enough of the Academy voters watched it. Seriously, this is the only conceivable reason why it didn’t win. I cannot see why anyone would select Coco over this magnificent work of art. I really really like Coco; it is a wonderful film but The Breadwinner is just something else. Coco, which told a beautifully universal story of family and love, just seems so trite and inconsequential when placed next to this.
The Breadwinner tells the story of eleven year old Parvana and her family living in 2001 Afghanistan. Theirs is a simple but loving existence until Parvana’s rather is arrested and imprisoned for inadvertently upsetting a young and overly zealous member of the ruling Taliban. With no man in the house anymore and with women not allowed to go out unaccompanied, the family are left with no way of making a living or even going out to buy food with the little money they do have. With no other option but to slowly perish Parvana disguises herself as a boy and goes out alone into the dangerous streets of a callously domineering and horribly sexist regime to bring her mother, older sister and infant brother what they need.
This is not a true story as such but it does tell a hundred true stories. When researching the book this is based on Canadian author Deborah Ellis interviewed dozens of refugees over a period of several months and the narrative she wrote is tragically very far from being the stuff of fiction. This of course makes The Breadwinner a far more important film than most animations as it educates as much as it engages. While Coco may have prompted a few tears then, here that same emotion is accompanied by anger and fear and it is a potent mix.
Obviously there is a strong feminist theme to the film as well. Parvana joins a long list of animated heroines but even with her Disney sistren moving way beyond the demure princesses of the fifties she still leaves them all standing. This film’s protagonist makes Moana look like Penelope Pitstop and I can’t think of a better role model for young girls, especially those fighting social battles of their own.
This isn’t your average kids cartoon then; it’s like Mulan meets Waltz with Bashir. It also draws comparisons with something like Kubo and the Two Strings though as there is a fantasy story being told alongside the realistic one. Parvana uses stories to distract from the challenges of her life and there is one particular tale of a boy who goes to face the elephant god terrorising his village that weaves itself through her own adventure. Still, the movie is rated 12A and even more than the multitude of superhero flicks that earn the same certificate this would be a hard watch for under tens. It isn’t graphic in its depiction of oppression and war but it does not shy away from this either and even for mature audiences it isn’t always an easy watch. It is powerful though and highly rewarding and the artistry in both the imagery and the storytelling is superb. It may not have got the awards it deserved but hopefully over time it will get the attention and the recognition it is so very worthy of.