Who loves Cartoon Saloon? This lady does! Though some parts of Song of the Sea left me a bit underwhelmed, Cartoon Saloon’s aesthetic stylings and my lingering, overflowing love for The Secret of Kells have ensured my continued excitement over their works. Despite The Breadwinner taking a far less fantastical approach to exploring the world, its trailer has me intrigued as to how this adaptation will fare given its more serious nature.
The Breadwinner, produced by Cartoon Saloon (and directed by Nora Twomey), is based off Deborah Ellis’s children’s book of the same name, which was published in 2000. Our setting is Kabul, Afghanistan, and our heroine is the twelve-year-old Parvana. Parvana’s father has recently been arrested by Taliban forces for having a “foreign education” and her mother, Fatana, has slipped into a deep depression over being unable to free him, so Parvana becomes the sole provider for her family. However, to do this and slip past both Taliban suspicion and the gendered rules within Afghanistan (such as women not being allowed to walk around without a man beside them), Parvana cuts her hair and begins living as a boy in the public eye.
My main fear when reading up on this story was in concerns to representation. First off, it probably doesn’t come as any surprise when I tell you that Deborah Ellis is a white woman. Still, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that Ellis’s story was crafted by listening and learning from the stories of women and younger girls in Pakistani refugee camps who were Afghani. Admittedly, it would have been preferable to have a story written by an Afghani woman about her experiences. But this is at least better than someone making an offensive approximation of events without actually consulting anyone about the reality. In terms of the animation, too, I was prepared to write yet another sentence or two about how the casting directors really should have hired voice actors and actresses of Middle Eastern descent. To my surprise, once again, I found that most, if not all, the voice talent in this movie match up with the characters on the screen. This is honestly the bare minimum of what all casting studios should be striving for, so patting them on the back for doing so seems a little… much. At the end of the day, though, I’m glad they did it and I hope Cartoon Saloon and the other production studios keep it up in the future.
Though Parvana’s story feels a bit more serious than what I’ve come to expect from this production house, what I’m really looking forward to is all the strong relationships between women and girls—if the movie plot follows the book. The Breadwinner is full of supportive, powerful relationships between the ladies in its cast. For instance, after Fatana falls into her depression, a PE teacher named Mrs. Weera comes to stay with the family and takes care of her, eventually leading them both into joining another group of women who work together to write and publish an underground magazine. Parvana, too, ends up in a business venture with another girl her age so they can both make money to support themselves and their families. Looking at the casting list I’m a bit troubled to see very few of the female characters from the book as roles; they’ve seemingly been replaced with male characters who were not important enough to mention in the book’s summary. Since she had such an impactful role in Ellis’s book, I find it strange that apparently no one has been cast as Mrs. Weera. And while Shauzia, the girl who started up a business with Parvana, is cast, she seems to have a smaller role than I would have guessed (just by the position of her name on the cast list on IMDb). It’s too early to say if the adaptation has changed that much, but I sincerely hope that trying to making this appeal to a wider audience doesn’t mean that the writers took out all these scenes of women and girls helping each other in favor of something like a love story or a rambling old man telling a tale.
The Breadwinner is rumored to come out in U.S. theaters sometime in November of this year. While I am looking forward to it, I hope that the original story is given the respect it deserves, even if it means toning down the fantasy we all know and love from Cartoon Saloon.