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Breadwinner, The (2017)

In Taliban controlled Afghanistan 11-year-old Parvana lives with her family. Life is tough but they get by because they have each other. But when her beloved father is suddenly taken away they find themselves isolated as the regime forbids unaccompanied women and girls from going out in public. In order for the family to survive, Parvana decides to pose as a boy in order to provide for her family and even try to learn what has happened to her Dad and where he has been taken.

The Breadwinner is the third full length animated feature from Ireland's Cartoon Saloon, directed by co-founder and The Secret Of Kells co-helmer Nora Twomey. The screenplay is adapted from the book series by Deborah Ellis by the author herself alongside Anita Doron. It's co-produced by Canada's Aircraft Pictures, alongside Luxembourg's Mélusine Productions and is the first film to be co-produced by GKIDS Films.

Twomey's debut solo feature is a world away from the studio's first two movies. Kells and Song Of The Sea were a celebration of Irish culture and folklore, love letters to the Emerald Isle and its people. This is a film which has little in common with their past work- or at least that's how it appears on the surface.

For a start, the change of location swaps the lush green landscapes and flights of fantasy for a much more muted colour palette. This is important not only in the sense of creating a real sense of place but also thematically, fitting the oppressive atmosphere of life under the regime. It's no less visually stunning for that, however. It retains the distinctive look of the Cartoon Saloon house style, with the character designs and beautiful backgrounds every bit the equal of their previous work.

At several points throughout the film, whenever a story is told, the animation style changes. When Parvana's father, (or later Parvana herself ) shares a story we are treated to some of the most beautiful sequences in the entire film. These colourful fantasies are depicted in a cut-out style that further distinguishes them from the cold reality of the "real world". These sequences emphasize the importance of story within the culture and perhaps provides the strongest obvious connection to their previous works, both thematically and in terms of imagery too.

These sequences also provide some light relief in what overall proves to be a very tense watch. The film does not shy away from the realities of their existence and does not pull any punches. From the beginning, the filmmakers are able to create a real sense of unease and a pervasively tense atmosphere that lasts to the very end. This is truly mature animated film-making that proves what the medium is capable of. There's no fantasy or supernatural elements in the real world of the film at all.

One of the other major themes of the film is the importance of family. Another way that this is closer to previous Cartoon Saloon films than it first appears in the way it portrays family relationship. Twomey portrays a strong family bond, where the love between the characters is genuine. At the same time, it shows that these relationships aren't always perfect. The children fight with each other in a realistic way, but you never doubt the strength of their bond. Parvana's relationship with her father is also at the very heart of the film.

Parvana also strikes up a friendship with another girl who is in a similar situation. Their friendship feels real and again brings a bit of lightness and playfulness to the film when it is most needed. It's depressingly rare to see realistic female friendships depicted in animation, so it's great to see it done so well here, in a film which is full of strong women and girls.

As a film made in the west but set in another culture, this is bound to attract some scrutiny in some quarters. Yet this is made with such respect and care that it's hard to imagine how anyone could object. This includes the casting, where the filmmakers made sure to hire actors of the appropriate background, to add to the sense of authenticity. The voice actors do a good job across the board, but special mention must go to Saara Chaudry whose moving portrayal of Parvana anchors the film and gives it its soul.

The film definitely earns its PG-13 rating (12A in the UK) and is probably not suitable for younger children. It is however adapted from a book aimed at kids around Parvana's age and it's important viewing for those old enough to handle it.

It doesn't speak down to its audience and doesn't feel the need to spell everything out or spoon feed us exposition. The story unfolds naturally and details emerge naturally. It also doesn't feel the need to give us a Hollywood ending, with everything neatly tied up in a bow.

Is it Cartoon Saloon's best film to date? That's not an easy question to answer, as it's a very different film to Song Of The Sea. The Studio Ghibli comparison may be a lazy one, but if Song was Cartoon Saloon's Spirited Away or Totoro then you could see this as their Grave Of Fireflies or The Wind Rises. It proves the diversity of their talents- and that of animation as a medium- and makes us even more excited about their future. This isn't the kind of animated movie that gets made very often in the west. It feels like it could change some of the wider audience's perceptions of what animation is capable of and that feels like a potential watershed moment for western feature animation.

1hr 34m 

IN A NUTSHELL: Another Cartoon Saloon masterpiece that is a must-see for anyone who cares about animation or quality cinema.

*Screener provided by GKIDS Films*