The (goofily named) Irish animation studio Carton Saloon has already established a solid reputation for delivering smartly-considered children’s films in recent years. Even as someone who bristles at the flat, personality-free sameness of most CG animation, I found their 2010 feature The Secret of Kells to be a low-key charmer. Cartoon Saloon’s house style seems to be an echo of hand-drawn animation tradition filtered through modern CG aesthetic, making something that usually turns me off at first sight surprisingly palatable. Nora Twomey, one of the co-directors of Kells, continues this mixture of styles in her latest work, an Afghanistan-set war drama titled The Breadwinner. Much like how The Secret of Kells details the ritualistic religious practices & handing down of tradition of an Irish community, The Breadwinner does the same for a very insular Afghani community (although one that suffers horrifically under religious extremism). Also like Kells, The Breadwinner can be somewhat frustrating in the way it restricts its most intricate, expressive animation flourishes to the margins.
A small Afghanistani family struggles to stay afloat under the tightening grip to the Taliban. The only man in the family is permanently disabled from a past war and the women are unable to venture outside the house because of extremist social constrictions. When the injured father is unfairly jailed, there is no one left to bring food into the home, so the youngest, least-consciously feminine daughter must disguise herself as a boy to provide for her family. It’s a narrative we’ve seen before in wartime & religious persecution contexts in works like Mulan & Yentl, but The Breadwinner pushes its commentary on gendered oppression to a rare prolonged extreme. Women are constantly harassed & physically beaten for not covering themselves ”properly” or for drawing “too much” attention to themselves. “Stay inside where you belong!” is a violent refrain in the film. The Breadwinner initially contrasts that oppression with the ease of performing previously impossible tasks (like buying groceries) when presenting masculine in a way that feels familiar, but the brutal repercussions of being discovered while falsely navigating public spaces feel more rawly truthful here than in anything I’ve seen before. It’s also remarkable in the way its narrative is broken up by a piecemealed fantasy story about a fabled Elephant King that eventually reveals an unspoken past familial trauma as the two worlds converge at a war-torn climax. Unfortunately, these storytelling tangents are where most of the film’s more detailed, expressive animation style is ghettoized. The backlit, layered cutouts of these segments resemble the Lotte Reiniger style established in The Adventures of Prince Achmed (animation doesn’t get much more traditional than that) in an impressive way, but are too rarely applied to overpower the film’s less visually interesting A-plot. Overall, The Breadwinner is an emotionally engaging story told with its most intricate visual artistry frustratingly restrained & diminished.
Besides being frustrated by its restraint in fully displaying its most expressive animation impulses, my inability to fully fall in love with The Breadwinner is perhaps a matter of genre. An Oscar-hopeful wartime drama produced by Angelina Jolie is rarely going to be the kind of thing that wins my heart, animated or not. Even the more punk-minded, traditionally-animated Persepolis had a wide cultural appeal that mostly escaped me. There’s also something a little suspect about a group of white women telling this very much Afghanistani story (adapted from an eponymous novel from a white author). It’s not like there isn’t enough violence & verbal harassment in Western culture (although typically less extreme) meant to kept public spaces comfortable only for men that could have been addressed on the screen. The story is respectfully told, though, with implications that reach beyond feminist & religious concerns to address the value of mythmaking & intergenerational storytelling. My stray concerns are petty gripes (though none as petty as my annoyance with the central family’s crying baby) when compared to my frustration with the animation style, though. Twomey & the other folks at Cartoon Saloon animate films like people used to illustrate children’s books, with the most intricate, expressive details of the work restrained to the borders of the frame. I greatly appreciate the feminist, anti-religious extremist, myth-minded story told in The Breadwinner even though Oscar-nominated war dramas are rarely my first choice in genre. The movie would have been vastly improved if its most striking animation style wasn’t restrained to the piecemealed story-within-a-story fantasy sequences in favor of the more flat, typical CG look that guides most of the runtime. It’s more or less on par with Loving Vincent for the strongest contenders in this year’s anemic Best Animated Feature race, though. Even with my nagging frustrations, that nomination was well-deserved and I’m glad that it boosted its profile enough for the film to see a recent pre-Oscars theatrical run in New Orleans (even though it simultaneously premiered on Netflix). By contrast, it took six years of strong word-of-mouth for me to catch up with The Secret of Kells.