Seeing Cartoon Saloon attached to a new animated film perks my interest up just as much as seeing one coming out from Laika. Cartoon Saloon produced what are two of my favorite modern animated films, The Secret of Kells and Song of the Sea, so seeing their geometric animation style in the promotional images for The Breadwinner got my eyebrow raised. Seeing Kells’ co-director, Nora Twomey, venturing out on her own was a plus, as was the move away from Ireland and into Afghanistan. The Breadwinner did not disappoint me, but I acknowledge that there’s a certain thinness of narrative and refusal to go deeper with its material.
These two points are valid criticisms of the film, but they weren’t enough to deter my enjoyment. Sure, I’d love to learn how Parvana’s cross-dressing impacted her on a deeper level, and found the story-within-a-story to be too obvious and route, but there’s still plenty to recommend and admire here. Perhaps a story of standing up to gender inequality meaning potential death is too much for an animated film to carry, but I respect the ambition to tell this story in this particular way.
The power of telling a story, of harnessing and controlling a narrative is the life blood of The Breadwinner, as Parvana’s father instills this lesson into her early on before the lesson eventually becomes a reoccurring theme. Parvana tells a story throughout, a fairy tale of a prince encountering numerous roadblocks and horrors, that functions as her making sense of a tragedy that happened off-screen long before we met the family. Although this is a bit of a great irony as the whole of The Breadwinner is creakiest in terms of narrative. A film about the power of storytelling is messiest in telling its own story, oh well.
But look at that animation! Bathed in warm golds and brown, with the occasional vibrantly bright colorful embellishment, the look of it is as enticing and gorgeous as Kells or Song of the Sea. The story-within-the-story segments are animated in an entirely different style that’s no less pleasing as they appear like felt cutouts of angular objects moving in a way that suggests heavily-caffeinated marionettes. Despite a uniform house style, this Cartoon Saloon release doesn’t look entirely like the other two and develops its own character and variation of the house style.
And even when the story falters, Parvana is a compelling heroine, a young girl of thwarted ambition and intelligence struggling against a suffocating ruling order. Her rebellion could have been better fleshed out, but she’s always a figure worth rooting for. It’s refreshing to watch an animated film about a young girl that doesn’t involve musical interludes, gimmicky sidekicks, or anything typically princess-y. She’s a real person with flaws, dreams, and struggles.
The power and beauty of The Breadwinner is in the broad strokes, like the bold lines and shapes that animate its characters. When a trip to the water well is fraught with more tension than the entirety of Dunkirk, then you know your film, flaws and all, is working remarkably well. I continued to look forward to what Cartoon Saloon releases next.