When The Secret of Kells opened in 2010 it garnered respectful-to-gushing reviews and snagged an Oscar nomination in the animated feature category—a neat trick for a film from a small Irish production company, Cartoon Saloon. I liked the film too, and applauded its ambitious visual design. Still, one thing nagged a little: the suspicion, present in every minute of the movie, that it was supposed to be good for you. When Cartoon Saloon brought forth Song of the Sea in 2014, another Oscar nomination followed, and once again I couldn’t shake the feeling that with all the glittering imagery on display, the point of it was to lecture us, not least on the subject of the sacred art of storytelling. The longer this kind of thing goes on the more I start wishing the Roadrunner and Wile E. Coyote would make an appearance.
Cartoon Saloon has a new one, The Breadwinner, which is about a little girl in Afghanistan who must shirk the misogyny of the Taliban and bravely find her way through a war-torn world. It carries Angelina Jolie’s name as executive producer. And—maybe you can see this coming—while the movie is wonderfully animated and thoroughly admirable in its political content, and while its message about the transformative power of stories is earnest, there’s still something stilted and schoolmarmish about it all.
The Breadwinner is based on a 2001 children’s novel by Canadian writer Deborah Ellis, set in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, prior to U.S. occupation. Our heroine is Parvana (voiced by Saara Chaudry), an 11-year-old Kabul girl. She’s devoted to her father, a kind man who lost a leg in the Afghan war against the Soviets. When he is jailed by the authorities for quietly speaking his mind, it leaves Parvana’s family—her ailing mother, an older sister, and baby brother—without a male figure who can perform daily tasks like buying food at the market. A woman who risks going out alone might be beaten or worse. Nevertheless, Parvana persists, and soon realizes that if she cuts her hair short—as a plucky girl friend has done—she might pass for a boy and be able to support her family.
That’s a terrific idea for a story, but The Breadwinner has bigger ambitions. Eventually Parvana tries to contact her father in prison, although it’s not clear what she could do even if she accomplishes that. Meanwhile, director Nora Twomey (who co-directed Kells) varies the animation style by including a story-within-a-story, told by Parvana to her toddler brother. This tale—rendered in vivid strokes that resemble paper cut-outs—chronicles a boy who battles against a mythical giant elephant king. The story exists for three apparent reasons: to provide an allegory for Parvana’s own battle, to extol the sustaining benefits of storytelling in our lives, and to show off Cartoon Saloon’s animation talents (which are considerable).
It’s a great looking movie, and perhaps it will be a useful teaching device for schoolrooms in future years. But The Breadwinner feels like it was made backwards: not so much to tell a great story, but to deliver a message. If the audience is supposed to be kids, the depiction of Afghanistan is going to require a bit of explanation (even though there’s already plenty of momentum-stopping exposition about the way the country has been a doormat for various invading armies). For that matter, the whole nobility-of-storytelling thing could use a little more inquiry; after all, the religious fanatics of the Taliban are inspired by the storytelling of their holy books. Sometimes stories keep you alive, as Scheherazade proved with 1001 Nights, but sometimes they kill.
The Breadwinner deserves credit for so boldly identifying and depicting misogyny; it certainly doesn’t back away from anything. Despite my reservations about its sermonizing, the film has moments of truly stirring imagery, like the occasional shock of seeing jet fighters scream across the sky after we’ve been lulled by the timeless atmosphere of Kabul. History keeps rolling across this landscape, the movie tells us, and each time it does, more people suffer. The Breadwinner opens Fri., Nov. 24 at SIFF Uptown, Rated PG-13