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The best animated film of 2017 could have been live-action. Thank Nora Twomey it wasn’t.

“You take a picture of somebody, it says one thing. You draw a picture ... it says something completely different.”

The Breadwinner
The Breadwinner’s spare animation beautifully tells an emotionally complicated story.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Some of my favorite films of recent years have come from the Irish studio Cartoon Saloon, a production house that has turned out three animated films, all of which I’ve loved, and two of which have been Oscar-nominated for Best Animated Feature (the third is eligible for the next Oscar ceremony).

The Secret of Kells, an enchanting Celtic myth mash-up, led the way in 2009, with 2014’s Song of the Sea deepening that film’s storytelling techniques and themes, to heartbreaking effect. The studio’s latest release, The Breadwinner, newly in theaters throughout the country, takes on a story that wouldn’t seem a natural fit for animation — the lives of young girls amid the perpetual turmoil of Taliban-ruled Afghanistan — and turns it into a surprisingly profound story of the power of fiction, the bonds of family, and the weight of history. It’s my favorite animated film of 2017.

The Breadwinner marks the solo directorial debut for Nora Twomey, who co-directed Kells and worked on the story of Sea. The film has been adapted from the book of the same name by Deborah Ellis, and it follows the story of Parvana, a girl forced to pose as a boy to make ends meet for her family when her father is taken to prison. As she works to help her family, and find her father, the drums of war beat in the distance, culminating in a suitably dramatic climax.

For as much as The Breadwinner juggles, both in its story and thematically, it’s a little surprising that the film is an animated one. Certainly a story like this, one almost entirely about normal, everyday human beings, could have been done in live-action. And typically it would have been done in live-action.

So when Twomey joined me for the latest episode of my podcast, I Think You’re Interesting, I asked her that exact question. And her answer was perhaps the most succinct explanation I’ve heard for why animation can unlock new ways of thinking about any story, not just stories about cartoon animals going on adventures. She says:

Animation allows you to empathize with characters in a very unique way I think that live action can’t. There is something about drawing a face and expressing a face with a few lines I think which makes a character universal and makes a character easy for an individual to identify with.

For me, that’s a very exciting space as a filmmaker. To enter into that space, for me, that’s the most interesting thing. There had been a live-action film about bacha posh, the girls dressed as boys in Afghanistan, called Osama, which was released in 2003. Similar subject matter, but there’s something about animation that allowed us to layer the story as well in a way in which our audiences didn’t emotionally disengage from our characters, which might have been the case with live-action — or certainly would have been a different set of problems with live-action.

There’s also an opportunity with animation to express things. You take a picture of somebody, it says one thing. You draw a picture of that person in the same circumstances, and it says something completely different. It’s difficult to express, but it’s easy to experience.

For much more with Twomey, including discussion of finding Afghan-Canadian actors to play the roles in the film, directing a baby to say just the right things, and designing what has to be the skinniest horse in the history of cinema, listen to the full episode.

To hear more interviews with fascinating people from the world of arts and culture — from powerful showrunners to web series creators to documentary filmmakers — check out the I Think You’re Interesting archives.

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