**** (out of 4)
At first glance, Nora Twomey’s The Breadwinner – the latest release from Ireland’s underappreciated Cartoon Saloon – might just look like a secondhand version of Disney’s Mulan. Like Mulan, Breadwinner’s protagonist, an Afghan named Parvana (Saara Chaudry), is a young, strong-willed woman who doesn’t hide her distaste for traditional gender mores. Like Mulan, moreover, Parvana lives with a family that happens to be short on able-bodied men: her father (Ali Badshah) is crippled, and her younger brother is still an infant. And just as extraordinary circumstances forced Mulan to cross-dress, Parvana decides to disguise herself as a boy after her father is suddenly, inexplicably arrested. Thanks to the Taliban, women in Parvana’s community can’t leave their homes without being whipped and beaten; for Parvana, becoming a guy is the only way she has even the slightest chance at keeping her family alive and whole.
These many apparent similarities, however, eventually make the differences between Mulan and The Breadwinner all the more meaningful. Movies like Mulan, after all, come from a filmmaking tradition centered on the creation of feel-good entertainment; if Parvana were a Disney protagonist, she’d probably be able to eradicate the Taliban with a couple of Oscar-baiting musical numbers. The actual Breadwinner, on the other hand, is not only gripping – in contrast to many Disney/Pixar movies, it never needs to strain to hold your attention – but it’s also honest about the bleakness of Parvana’s plight. Unlike in Mulan, Parvana never gets to show up the bigots in her life; she does well as a guy, but there’s no suggestion that she’ll ever be able to drop the act, and Twomey always reminds us that female-Parvana wouldn’t have been able to win strangers’ sympathy like male-Parvana. Even as the ending inspires, moreover, you’re left painfully aware that Parvana’s family is lucky: like Bong Joon-ho’s Okja, the movie chastens you with the idea that sometimes, the most ordinary individuals can do in oppression’s wake is save their own skin.
Rounding off The Breadwinner’s aforementioned narrative nuance is its equally astute homage to the importance of storytelling. Many animated films (Kubo and the Two Strings, Moana) have paid tribute to the allure of legends; other movies (Pan’s Labyrinth) have suggested that stories give children a chance to escape from life. Twomey’s understanding of the power of stories combines these ideas…and then goes one step further. As Parvana’s father puts it, Parvana comes from a culture that’s always been stuck on “the edge of kingdoms” – a culture, in other words, that has always found itself at the mercy of despotic foreign invaders. And in the face of such injustice, storytelling serves to remind people like Parvana that they belong to a community with a shared history of suffering and resilience. As such, the tales of past heroes and battles do more than just provide a way for The Breadwinner’s characters to amuse themselves or hide from reality; without stories, in a sense, their society would cease to exist altogether.
Visually, The Breadwinner easily lives up to the standard set by Cartoon Saloon’s previous releases (The Secret of Kells, Song of the Sea). Its hand-drawn animation is gorgeous – but more importantly, it also ably embodies the story’s themes. The Kabul Parvana moves through during the day is two-dimensional, dusty, and dull, as though representative of the persecution she has to endure at the hands of the Taliban. When she tells fables to her younger brother at night, however, the screen is overtaken by vibrant, three-dimensional montages of color and light – a contrast that perfectly encapsulates the notion that stories are what give life to downtrodden communities.
In the midst of this overarching dichotomy, moreover, you can easily catch so many details that testify to the thoughtfulness of Twomey’s direction. Here’s just one example. As a girl, Parvana always dons either an outfit of green and red or one of green and blue; when she walks through Kabul with her father, her clothes provide the only source of color in a frame that’s otherwise dominated by bland tones of gray and brown. After she becomes a boy, however, Parvana always wears a plain white-and-brown outfit that fully blends in with the background. These visuals recall Schindler’s List in their evocation of lost innocence; as it was with Spielberg, Twomey’s masterful usage and manipulation of color only add to the sense of tragedy that pervades Parvana’s story.
In recent weeks, the media have been showering praise upon Coco, the Pixar film that allegedly “defies Trump” in its celebration of a minority that Trump loves to denigrate. By contrast, if Google is any guide, The Breadwinner hasn’t even been getting 10% of the attention Coco’s gotten – a disparity that I’m frankly still struggling to fathom. Like Coco, after all, The Breadwinner effectively counters Trump’s scapegoating of non-white minorities: Parvana and her family give lie to the notion that all Muslims are misogynistic terrorists. But while Coco was artificial, superficial, and ultimately frustrating as a basic narrative, The Breadwinner complements its social message with an actual story – namely, a story that never tries to insult your intelligence. Fortunately, the Los Angeles Film Critics Association recently gave people at least some reason to hope that the Disney/Pixar juggernaut is beatable. One can only hope that larger organizations (cough cough, Oscar) eventually follow suit and recognize the real animated masterpiece of the year.
The Breadwinner (2017)
Voices: Saara Chaudry, Soma Bhatia, Noorin Gulamgaus, Kane Mahon, Ali Badshah
Running Time: 94 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13, “for thematic material, including some violent images.”
Produced by: Anthony Leo, Tomm Moore, Andrew Rosen, Paul Young
Written by: Anita Doron, Deborah Ellis. Based on Deborah Ellis’ 2000 novel of the same name.
Directed by: Nora Twomey
 As of December 7, 2017, “coco” produced 6,300,000 hits on Google News; “breadwinner” only produced 120,000.