I had never heard of, nor even seen, a trailer for The Breadwinner before I went to see the movie. I happened to be walking by the small independent theater near my apartment, saw a poster for the film, and decided to watch it. Going in blind, I didn’t realize until after the screening that The Breadwinner is based on the bestselling book of the same name by Deborah Ellis. The Breadwinner was adapted by the Irish studio, Cartoon Saloon, which also made The Secret of Kells and Song of the Sea. The film’s plot revolves around a family struggling under the heel of Taliban rule in Afghanistan. The family’s youngest daughter, Parvana, is forced to traverse the streets of Kabul, disguised as a boy or bacha posh (literally translated “dressed up as a boy”), to earn money for their survival after their father, Nurullah, their sole provider, is taken prisoner.
The Breadwinner looks really good. In an age where entire films are made on computers, that may not mean much anymore. Studios can pump out well animated but ultimately mediocre movies all the time. The Breadwinner succeeds not only in its brilliant animation but also through its style and atmosphere. The gentle, hand-drawn animation (and CGI) belie the film’s naturalistic backgrounds, packed with rich detail. In fact, the backgrounds of the film all look like painstakingly crafted oil paintings. The main color palette of the film is various shades of brown, but the visuals never seem boring or dull. Because of this specific palette, the other bright colors are highlighted with importance. The film really cuts loose during the storytelling paper-animation (CGI effects convincingly constructed to look like stop-motion paper cutouts) sequences. The colors here are vivid and vibrant, and the animation is wonderfully juxtaposed with that of the ‘real world’ in which Parvana and her family live.
The atmosphere of The Breadwinner is one of almost constant oppressive dread. Much of the film is dark, dusty, and dingy, mirroring the characters’ bleak lives. The filmmakers do an impeccable job of making each time Parvana ventures outside alone feel like a life or death situation (which it is). Adding another basting of tension is the extremely precarious situation of Parvana and her family. If she fails, they will all die and she will never see her father again. Death and tragedy are around every corner. Roving packs of violent young men patrol the streets of Kabul doling out brutal justice to those unfortunate enough to have broken even the most trivial of rules. Parvana’s father, a kind, intelligent war veteran is beaten and taken to prison right before her eyes. Her mother, attempting to retrieve their only means of survival from prison, is savagely beaten; again as Parvana helplessly watches. Through all this, Parvana and her family endure. What effectively relieves this tension are the colorful, fantastic, and whimsical stories that Parvana and her family tell.
The characters of The Breadwinner and the film’s voice acting are also superb. The characters all emote and feel like real people in a desperate situation. Each character, except Parvana’s adorable younger brother, is tinged with sadness. Everyone has lost someone or something. People are wounded, some physically, others deeper psychologically still. Our hero Parvana, her family, and her friends all fight to survive the violent oppression of The Taliban. Parvana steadfastly refuses to give up the hope that they will find her father and survive, in spite of overwhelming odds. Much like The Shawshank Redemption, holding onto hope despite being in an utterly hopeless situation is a major theme of this film. Instead of a literal prison, Taliban controlled Kabul functions much like one for Parvana and her family. Throughout the film, Parvana, her family, and her close friend tell stories to distract, educate, entertain, or uplift them from their current situation. The stories they tell become powerful coping mechanisms. Parvana especially draws strength and hope from these stories, and they will her to survival.
The Breadwinner is a beautifully animated film, with painstakingly crafted backgrounds. But it's also much more than that. Its a tale of the importance of hope in the face of dire, hopeless situations, a meditation on the power of storytelling, and an inspiring film about the strength of women in spite of insurmountable adversity. The film’s ending is purposely ambiguous, leaving us to ponder the fate of Parvana and her family. We know that life doesn’t always have happy endings. Life is often brutal, harsh, and short. But The Breadwinner implores us to tell and cherish stories, for we can make them as fantastic, strange, and hopeful as we want. I’m glad I managed to catch The Breadwinner, it’s one of the best-animated films of 2017.
TLDR: The Breadwinner is an exceptionally well-drawn, animated, and written film about a young girl and her family struggling to survive under Taliban rule in Afghanistan. 4/5 Stars