The story could be tighter, but the heroine is as intrepid as any Disney princess, and the animation is gorgeous, in the semi-family-geared Afghanistan-set “The Breadwinner.”
The film is directed by Cartoon Saloon’s Nora Twomey, codirector of the animated Irish gem “The Secret of Kells.”
Anita Doron’s screenplay is adapted from a children’s novel — Deborah Ellis’ title book — but the film, which contains dark material involving religious fundamentalism and political conflict, brings to mind the adult-themed animated “Persepolis” and live-action “Osama” as much as it resembles any big-studio animated family adventure starring a plucky girl.
In 2001, in Taliban-ruled Kabul, 11-year-old Parvana (voiced by Saara Chaudry) sits in the marketplace with her former-schoolteacher father, Nurullah (Ali Badshah), who writes and reads aloud letters for a living.
When the Taliban hauls the independent-minded Nurullah off to prison for no legitimate reason, Parvana and her mother, teenage sister, and toddler brother are in danger of starving. Under Taliban rule, women cannot appear in public if they aren’t accompanied by a man, even to work or buy food.
To support her family and rescue her father, Parvana, with her mother’s silent, sad assistance, cuts off her long hair, dons a dead brother’s clothes, and enters Afghanistan’s male world.
The filmmakers have added a secondary narrative, a fantasy adventure involving a heroic boy and a menacing elephant king. Displaying her father’s bent for storytelling, Parvana spins this tale to entertain her brother.
The story-within-a-story approach can be problematic. The elephant-king plot needs more clarity, and the frequent shifting between narratives weakens the main story.
There are missed opportunities regarding the portrayal of Parvana’s situation. Think of the dialogue Pavana and new pal Shauzia (Soma Chhaya), a fellow girl in boys’ clothing, might have shared about their gender-related experiences in a Taliban-controlled environment.
Still, the movie charms and dazzles the eye. Scenes of Afghanistan — everything from a buzzing bazaar to discarded military tanks in a desert landscape — have an exquisitely sandy and captivating, realistic look, and the line-drawn characters convey impressive emotion.
The elephant-king material, which features cutout-style animation and colorful imagery, fittingly suggests the product of a child’s imagination. Sometimes, the animators combine brightness and sadness. Yellow flowers emerging from rocks beautifully signify hope and possibility.
The film also deserves credit for not sugarcoating hardship, even if that means it may be unsuitable for younger kids. While Parvana may rival Hollywood’s animated heroines for courage, she’s not presented as a rule-changing or world-saving supergirl.
Starring Voices of Saara Chaudry, Soma Chhaya, Ali Badshah, Kara Ada
Written by Anita Doron
Directed by Nora Twomey
Running time 1 hour, 34 minutes