Cartoon Saloon's The Breadwinner: just how bleak do you like your animation?

I've recently rewatched Cartoon Saloon's Song Of The Sea with my nineteen-month old, albeit in three thirty-minute stints. Whilst every nuance of the plot might not quite have been absorbed, it is fair to say that it had an effect. There were sections watched in complete stillness, mouth agape. When Ben, the protagonist of the film, comes to an emotional realisation late on, and sheds a tear, there was a rubbing of eyes from the small one on my own sofa. During the climax, CĂș, an old English sheepdog, spurred on by two spirit dogs, races home, with Ben and his sister Saoirse on his back, as the music stirs a crescendo. Most of that section was absorbed whilst bouncing around the sofa, shouting at the screen in two minutes of pure joy. It's the first time anything on film has produced that sort of reaction.

It's with mixed emotions then that I watched Cartoon Saloon's latest, The Breadwinner, alone. Directed by Nora Twomey, who co-directed The Secret Of Kells with Song Of The Sea's director, Tomm Moore, the film tells the story of Parvana (Saara Chaudry), an eleven year-old girl growing up in Afghanistan. When her father is arrested and taken away by the Taliban, Parvana disguises herself as a boy so that she can support her older sister, mother and younger brother.

From very early on, The Breadwinner created an uneasy feeling in my stomach, which I never shook off until the end credits. There is genuine and repeated heartache here, not just in the reveals and the developments of the plot, but in the very fabric of the film. Mark Kermode often quotes Roger Ebert's assertion that films are 'empathy machines' and never is that more true than here. The Breadwinner confronts the hardships of the world - and the very specific hardship of this time and location - in such a matter of fact manner that it is impossible not to be moved by what it has to show. There will be guilt too. The idea that the events of the story happen in a world to which we all share citizenship seems preposterous. How can we allow it? How did we allow it?

Twomey's film shows Cartoon Saloon refining their animation style to new heights. The content matter is belied by the gorgeous and fluid animation and sound design. Like Song Of The Sea, there are diversions to slightly different animation styles throughout, mainly to a story Parvana tells in segments throughout the film about a young boy from a village challenging an evil force which has taken the village's supplies. 'Is it a happy story, or a sad story?', Parvana's friend asks at one point. 'Just you wait and see', comes the reply.

Both the film within the film and The Breadwinner itself take a similar approach. By the conclusions, you can read happiness or sadness, or maybe just life. That's about as a bold a message from a 'children's' animation as you're likely to receive. If you or your children found Inside Out too emotional or cerebral then be warned: this is another level entirely.

Which leaves me in something of a quandary. This is 'notable' in the truest sense of the word. It's a western animation that deals with major social questions in a mature, considered and gorgeous way. It is currently in my top ten of the year list and I suspect that it will stay there. It is also, I would suggest, too bleak for most children under thirteen (it has a PG-13 rating in the US), which means that it will be some time before I can sit down with my son and enjoy Cartoon Saloon's latest. That feels a little like a missed opportunity. If some of this story could have been balanced by a little more lightness then the message of the film could have made it beyond the thirteen-and-above audience and to Cartoon Saloon's core crowd. Perhaps that's being too harsh on a film that dares to tell a story many would have rejected and, because of that, creates something of true significance.

By Sam Turner. Sam is editor of Film Intel, and can usually be found behind a keyboard with a cup of tea. He likes entertaining films and dislikes the other kind. He's on , Twitter and several places even he doesn't yet know about.

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