Genre: Drama/Slice of Life
Year Released: 2017
Running Time: 94 minutes
Rating/Recommended Audience: PG-13
Related Films/Series: N/A
For Fans Of: Yentl, Offside (Jafar Panahi film), Song of the Sea, Persepolis, Sita Sings the Blues, Khalil Gibran’s The Prophet, The Kite Runner, Mulan
-The Breadwinner is based on a book written by Canadian author Deborah Ellis which was written in the year 2000. Interestingly enough, she also gained membership in the Order of Canada.
-The story takes place in Kabul which is the capital of Afghanistan. Currently, there are over 4.6 million people living there which makes it the 75th largest city in the world.
-This is the third full-length film from the Irish animation studio Cartoon Saloon. It also gave multiple firsts for the studio. The Breadwinner is the first movie from them that doesn’t take place in Ireland, the first not to have Bruno Coulais or the band Kila on music duty, the first to get a PG-13 rating, and the first Cartoon Saloon movie where Nora Twomey was the sole director of the film (she was a co-director of The Secret of Kells though).
-Angelina Jolie was an executive producer of The Breadwinner. I can’t make this up to save my life. She’s clearly the biggest name Cartoon Saloon ever attached to one of their projects. Also, fun fact: This is the second movie I reviewed that involved someone who played Maleficent since the first is My Life as a Zucchini which featured Susan Blakeslee who was in the English dub.
-The Breadwinner was scored by brothers Mychael and Jeff Danna. Both of them have done musical work for movies such as Life of Pi, The Good Dinosaur, and The Boondock Saints.
-The Breadwinner won the Annie Award in the Independent category much like Mirai, The Red Turtle, and Boy and the World did. Funny how three out of the four winners are all distributed by GKIDS.
Cartoon Saloon, I knew you’d be back with my Iridium eyesight sooner or later. You are Ireland’s premier studio that has so much potential and had animation prowess that rivals or even exceeds those from Dreamworks, Blue Sky, and even Disney. While I didn’t delve into the TV shows or short films, I certainly watched and reviewed your previous two films. The Secret of Kells was a visual masterpiece, but there were faulty elements and one character had a very questionable design. Then there was Song of the Sea which really surprised me with how good that was and easily my favorite Cartoon Saloon so far. I’ve heard about the third film from this oeuvre from this Irish studio, but I finally got a chance to watch it.
Cartoon Saloon, you really took chances with this one, didn’t you?
The Breadwinner takes place at the turn of the millennium in Kabul, Afghanistan. There’s an eleven-year-old girl named Parvana who lives with her amputee father Nurullah, her mom Fattema, older sister Soraya, and toddler brother Zaki. She helps her father sell their wares in front of their house after he retired from teaching due to losing his leg during the Soviet-Afghan War a long time ago. Unfortunately, the Taliban abuse and arrest him after it was misunderstood that he insulted a young member named Idrees who was also Nurullah’s former student. Because of the laws of the land, the women can’t leave their house unless they are accompanied by a male family member and Zaki is far too young to go with them. The lack of a father in the house means they couldn’t just go outside, so Parvana decides to disguise herself as a boy going under the name “Aatish” (Farsi for Fire) not just to get important things such as food and water to the rest of the family, but also to set her father free from jail.
This was certainly different from the other movies I’ve seen from Cartoon Saloon, but I mean this in a good way. The animation quality is certainly of great quality like the previous films, but the aesthetics have changed. There are far more earth tones for most of the scenes like Yugo the Negotiator’s Pakistan arc although with far better production. That trademark magical element of previous Cartoon Saloon films still shows up here with the stories that Parvana tells to others where the animation gets far more colorful and the animation gets more of an older traditional feel much like some of the Rama scenes from Sita Sings the Blues, but with even more wonder to them. The music incorporates acoustic and Middle-eastern rhythms which was a wonderful touch to the whole film. Parvana certainly was a good female lead on the same caliber as Aisling from The Secret of Kells. She starts out as a disillusioned child, but she’s very creative with her stories and strategies to survive while living this double life. Parvana is certainly a fighter of sorts as she does whatever it takes to take care of her family and also rescue her father in the final act of the film. All these Disney princesses and heroines wish they had her drive, wits, and independence. Even the other female members in her family develop to become strong in their own right, especially during the last third of the movie. The cultural aspects could’ve easily made Fattema and Soraya damsels in distress, but they get to show that they can hold their own when push came to shove. One highlight was Razaq. It looked like he was going to be a typical Taliban member, but he ends up being way more moral and is willing to help Parvana despite not being aware of her disguise. It’s revealed he’s illiterate and she helps him to read and write while he gives her an opportunity to save her father. This was great writing because it shows that not every Afghan man is there to oppress everyone with the religious rules and regulations. Also, The Breadwinner passes the Deggans test which is a first for Cartoon Saloon. Nice touch!
The Breadwinner does suffer from a few things though. I found some issues with the ways gender played into the movie. It made sense given the real-life laws in Afghanistan, but I think Parvana being a girl became over-emphasized in different parts of the movie. It didn’t come across as feminist-baiting (it would’ve passed the Bechdel Test if it did, not that it’s a bad thing), but that aspect of the Parvana character could’ve been toned down at points. I thought Soraya while having a good moment of character development was a typical jaded older sister archetype for most of the film. It wasn’t as bad as Nat’s big sister in Eleanor’s Secret, but it was still noticeable. There were aspects of the Idrees character that came off as stereotypical and even creepier in hindsight. I get that he’s trying to impress the older members of the Taliban, but he falls into typical villain roles which is sad because I know Cartoon Saloon was better than this (see: Song of the Sea). One scene that made my skin crawl was when he claimed that Parvana and her other disguised friend Shauzia were “undercooked” right before he realizes that Parvana was the same girl he saw before. I know nothing sexual happens, but I couldn’t get that horrible scene from The Kite Runner out of my head when he said that line which made his character way more disturbing in hindsight which also doesn’t help how there’s an issue of certain people in society enslaving boys to dance and to do horrible things to (once again, see The Kite Runner if you don’t know what I’m talking about).
This film from Cartoon Saloon was another notch in the belt from that studio. The production is amazing as always from that animation company. The characters are people you want to root for and feel like real people. The mix between the real-life elements and Parvana’s story of the Elephant King worked very well with the parallel elements and with their respective animation styles. I wasn’t a fan of some of the subtext with Idrees or some out-of-context yuri moments with Parvana and Shauzia in some of their later scenes. To put my review in a nutshell, I thought The Breadwinner was better than The Secret of Kells, but not as good as Song of the Sea. If you know my opinions on those films, then you would know that it’s still very good. Recommended.
Adjustable Rating System:
Add 1-2 points if you like Cartoon Saloon’s works.
Subtract 1-2 points if you prefer more tame storylines in your animation.
-Passes the Deggans test
-Very good lead characters
-Questionable subtext with Idrees and the Parvana/Shauzia friendship
-Too much emphasis on Parvana’s gender for her character
-Can be too adult for most animation fans expecting something else
Final Score: 8/10 points
Content Warning: The Breadwinner got a PG-13 rating which is certainly new for a Cartoon Saloon production. It’s definitely more mature than their previous films and TV series with the usage of blood, child labor, violence, and some of it is inflicted on children onscreen. Some characters die and the Afghanistan War starts up in the final act of the movie. There’s some yuri subtext with Shauzia which can be uncomfortable, but the “undercooked” comment by Idrees is far worse given a horrible thing that’s happened to multiple boys in Afghanistan.
All photos property of their respective owners and used under US “Fair Use” laws. The Breadwinner is property of GKIDS and Universal. The DVD/Blu-Ray set is from Amazon and is property of GKIDS and Universal.