Visually captivating even when it's narratively uneven, the animated film "The Breadwinner" tells the story of a brave girl living in Afghanistan under the Taliban in the lead-up to the 2001 U.S. invasion. Based on Canadian author Deborah Ellis's young adult novel, the first in a best-selling series, the film comes from Cartoon Saloon, the Irish animation studio that created the Oscar-nominated features "The Secret of Kells" and "Song of the Sea," and it was executive-produced by Angelina Jolie, who has visited Afghanistan as a United Nations goodwill ambassador.
Eleven-year-old Parvana, voiced by Saara Chaudry, lives with her parents and siblings in Kabul, where her father, a former teacher who lost a lower leg during the country's civil war, earns a meager living as a letter writer in the marketplace. (Like Chaudry, most of the cast is not well known.) After the Taliban suddenly arrest her father, Parvana cuts off her hair to pass as a boy so she can work to support her family. Along with Shauzia, a friend who has also disguised herself as a boy, Parvana begins to save up money and plot how to get her father out of prison.
The animation beautifully brings to life the physical landscape and cultural setting of Kabul, from the bustling bazaar scenes and residential neighborhoods dotted with silhouettes of mosques to the vistas of distant mountains. Characters are also deftly rendered in a realistic way that shows their personalities and emotions, whether Parvana's older sister's frequent pout or a young Taliban fighter's self-righteous anger.
Even more vivid is the fairy tale of sorts that Parvana tells in installments to entertain her toddler brother. In contrast to the muted palette of real-life Kabul, Parvana's fantastical stories are depicted with colorful cutout images that evoke a child's whimsical drawings.
Yet while artistically impressive, the tale within a tale — about a boy on a hero's quest to overcome a mythical, beastlike "elephant king" — is at times hard to follow, and key clues to its deeper meaning take too long to become clear.
The heavy subject matter and intense imagery make the movie unsuitable for children any younger than the protagonist, particularly as the alternation between scenes of real life and Parvana's story world builds toward an increasingly dark and chaotic ending.
The film adaptation departs significantly from Ellis's 2000 novel, both in its creative fairy-tale elements and in a number of plot changes and simplifications. Perhaps predictably, it also adds in some overly familiar tropes of people from the region: The men, Taliban and not, are mostly bad guys, and Islam shapes the daily rhythm of Parvana's family (whereas in the novel they appear to be fairly secular).
Nonetheless, "The Breadwinner's" compelling and sympathetic portrayal of Afghans and their struggles is welcome, presenting a chance for viewers to identify with the plight of citizens of a country whose fate has been so greatly shaped by our own.
PG-13. At Landmark's E Street Cinema. Contains animated depictions of violence and bloodshed, including beatings and a shooting, along with some mildly scary mythical creatures. 93 minutes.