'The Breadwinner': Canadian Feature Animation on the Map

The Breadwinner
(Canada/Ireland/Luxembourg, 93 min.)
Dir. Nora Twomey, Writ. Anita Doron
Starring: Saara Chaudry, Soma Chhaya, Laara Sadiq, Shaista Latif, Ali Badshah
It’s so exciting to see The Breadwinner open on the heels of Window Horses. 2017 is a great year for putting Canadian feature animation on the map. Like the poetic Persian epiphany of Rosie Ming in Ann Marie Fleming’s animated work of art, The Breadwinner is a visually striking fable with a grand international scope that tackles complex subjects of family, identity, and belonging.

Each feature brings its unique visual palette to stand apart from the world of CGI extravaganzas. (And, unlike most Disney films, neither takes children’s intelligence for granted.) This international co-production has Irish director Nora Twomey at the helm, a formidable talent behind the Oscar nominees Song of the Sea and The Secret of Kells, and adapts the acclaimed children’s novel by Ontario author Deborah Ellis. With a sweeping canvas and beautiful visual design, plus executive producer credits for Angelina Jolie and Jehane Noujaim (The Square), this ambitious animated film is a lovely production fit for the whole family.

The Breadwinner whisks audiences to the honey golden streets of Taliban-controlled Kabul, Afghanistan shortly before 9/11. The film sees Afghanistan at a crossroads through the eyes of 11-year-old girl Parvana (voiced by Saara Chaudry), whose intelligence, imagination, and resilience defy the patriarchal regime unsettling the nation. Parvana becomes the main provider for her family when the Taliban arrests her beloved father for teaching his daughters how to read. The young girl plays by the Taliban’s virulent dismissive attitude towards women by disguising herself as a boy to support her family.

Yentl for children, The Breadwinner is not. Parvana doesn’t play dress-up to find herself embroiled in a love triangle. Instead, she quickly sees how shorter hair and a different set of clothes afford a sense of freedom to which girls like her are denied access by the Taliban. The Breadwinner puts Parvana on an adventure to free her father while negotiating the social structures of her community, dodging misogynistic insurgents, and finding threads of common humanity that unfurl from the most unexpected allies. The Breadwinner smartly teaches young audiences about human rights issues and the status of women in Taliban-controlled Kabul without pandering or “othering” the characters in this tale made by outsiders to the Afghan community. It’s respectful and sensitive, particularly in the voice casting and score by Mychael Danna and Jeff Danna, which draws upon the contributions of Afghan musicians and vocalists.

The star of the film, however, is the animation. Twomey offers a rich canvas that uses two distinct aesthetics with scenes in Kabul sketched in realistic slice-of-life renderings—more classical composition with subdued palettes—while a second design takes place in the world of Parvana’s imagination. These scenes offer fantastic paper cut-outs that create visual expressions of a story Parvana tells about an Elephant King and a young child on a quest akin to the young heroine’s journey. The images of the Elephant King fable are more akin to the folkloric designs of Song of the Sea and The Secret of Kells that one might expect from Twomey’s body of work.

The contrast between reality and fantasy in the two aesthetics illustrates The Breadwinner’s effort to respect the conditions for women in Afghanistan while also making a story that is accessible to children. These two worlds converge in the film’s climax as the breathtaking music reaches its crescendo and war breaks out in Afghanistan, putting Parvana’s courage to the test and making her a hero for viewers young and old. The Breadwinner is an enchanting and inspiring real-world fable.

The Breadwinner opens in theatres November 24.