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Review: The Breadwinner

by Mark Laherty

The Irish animation studio Cartoon Saloon has become beloved to the country. This is deserved; they’ve done excellent work, most notably Song of the Sea and The Secret of Kells. This reviewer’s little sister loves Puffin Rock, a cartoon set on Skellig Michael (no Star Wars jokes, please). Based on the book series by Deborah Ellis, the Saloon’s new motion picture is a story about a young girl named Parvana and her family, who live under Taliban rule in 2001 Afghanistan.

It’s surprising that such a grim topic was moulded into an animated family film. The story is largely concerned with how Taliban rule forbade women to leave the house without a man and demanded that they cover themselves. When Parvana’s father is arrested with no charge, she disguises herself as a boy so that her family can survive. The scheme finds some success but Parvana also wants to save her father. All this leads into, by cartoon standards, a brutal third act where recent history inevitably plays out and the family comes face to face with a physical manifestation of colonialism and capitalism.

As Parvana’s story unfolds, she also tells her little brother an episodic bedtime story. The two stories parallel nicely, with major beats in the bedtime story acting as clear metaphors for Parvana’s own adventure. The basic story of The Breadwinner, the story of a woman in disguise as a man, has obviously been done before. This back-and-forth is the hook that makes it different and fresh. Also deserving of mention is the excellent musical score by Mychael and Jeff Danna (Life of Pi).

This film fits neatly, whether it would like to or not, into the discourse surrounding other Disney animation like Moana and Pocahontas. If you need a quick introduction to the concept of cultural appropriation, I’d recommend Franchesca Ramsey’s video on the topic. But, if you’ve navigated your way this far into the internet, there’s a good chance that you’ve participated in or witnessed at least a couple of heated arguments about Justin Bieber’s hair or whatever.

Ireland is in a grey area here. We are a predominantly white country. But, anyone who’s ever opened an Irish history book will know that we’re a historically colonised nation. Any connection to Afghanistan is relatively tenuous. So, where does The Breadwinner fall? Without wanting to step twelve yards out of my lane, I’ll argue that The Breadwinner is easily one of the more sensitive efforts at representation you’ll find in children’s animation. There are a few reasons for this: it’s an earnest attempt at positive representation and it hasn’t been heavily merchandised.

The movie is sincere in its intentions. Its designing principle is to show how patriarchy and colonialism hurt Afghan families. The voice cast is Afghan. Without letting the cat out of the bag, there are some achingly beautiful moments in this movie, moments that make use of Afghan culture and imagery. It is true that, literally speaking, this is cultural appropriation. But, it is not appropriation in the most widely discussed sense, at least not entirely. It is an honest representation of a family from Afghanistan made by an Irish studio.

I had the opportunity to talk to a couple of the animators. They said that there were many different versions of the ending. They deliberately moved away from ideas that seemed to have an inappropriate tone. Obviously, the climax can’t be discussed in detail here (although, if you know your international relations, you can take a wild stab in the dark). But, it can be said that the ending they went with mostly works, as does the movie overall.

The other important thing to be said is that The Breadwinner didn’t release alongside a flurry of stuffed toys or cake toppers. Compare it to Moana. For all its successes, the latest Disney Animated Classic was heavily merchandised in a way that left many feeling ambivalent. But, the movie itself tried to not stereotype indigenous Pacific Islanders. By comparison,The Breadwinner doesn’t have a huge slate of merchandise. Better yet, the movie has no jokes about Twitter; there aren’t any points where it awkwardly lapses into Western-centric comic relief. It’s quite likely that you viewed Moana as something slightly more worthwhile than an exploitative cash-grab. If that’s the case, then you certainly won’t have any fatal problem with The Breadwinner.

Presenting a grim critique of colonialism as a film appropriate for children is a heck of a balancing act. Even in a movie as beautiful as this, the care with which it walks that line stands out as one of its strengths. Catch this in cinemas while you can. It’s something Ireland’s arts scene should be proud of.

Mark Laherty writes about media and politics on his WordPress blog. You can also support him on Patreon.

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