A tough story becomes a triumphant gem in The Breadwinner

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      Featuring the voice of Saara Chaudry. Rated PG

      The Breadwinner brings gorgeously wrought animation and Afghan music to the story of a girl fighting to help her family survive Taliban-era Kabul.

      It comes as little surprise the film looks as entrancing as it does: it was created by Cartoon Saloon, a sort of Irish Studio Ghibli that brought such mystical, magical work to The Secret of Kells and Song of the Sea.

      Here, the animators create a similar mix of the grittily real and the mythical in an Afghan setting. Eleven-year-old Parvana inhabits a dusty, repressive world of ghostlike blue burkas against bleak dirt houses and streets. But when she tells a legend about a boy on a hero’s quest to overcome an elephant king, the creative team conjures monsters and imaginary worlds employing the same lovingly handmade-feeling, 3-D cutout animation it used to bring Celtic selkies, witches, and elves to life in Song of the Sea.

      Based on Canadian author Deborah Ellis’s young-adult novel, the tale, set in 2001 on the eve of the U.S. invasion, becomes an unusual but powerful mix of heady visual style and urgent call for peace and the end of oppression—particularly of women and girls. The look and feel is reminiscent of Anne Marie Fleming’s recent Window Horses, but it’s far more accessible for children. In fact, kids around 10 and up will get a sorely needed education on the hardships of life elsewhere on the planet, difficult as some of the subject matter may be.

      Parvana’s family is faced with starvation when her father, a former teacher crippled during the country’s civil war, is thrown into jail by roving religious police. Because no women are allowed to leave the house unattended by men, that means no food or income for her sick mother, her teen sister, and her toddler brother. Parvana decides to cut her hair and disguise herself as a boy so she’s able to buy food, and make a small income reading letters to the illiterate in the marketplace. At the same time, her mother considers selling off her older sister for marriage as a way of escaping increasingly war-ridden Kabul.

      Sometimes the tale within the tale, about the boy, is hard to follow. But director Nora Twomey and her team deserve credit for drawing characters far more complex than those in your average Disney cartoon. Even a “bad guy” young militant is shown being dragged off to war in an open-bed truck, and you can see, in some ways, he’s as much a prisoner of this world as Parvana.

      But the key is that The Breadwinner finds hope, even in this violent place. The climax’s descent into chaos is certainly not a fairy-tale ending, but it puts forth a message that courageous acts, even by a child, can make a difference.