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I admire "The Breadwinner" despite its being excruciatingly unhappy for a child-centric animated film, despite its setting in a fractured far-off society, despite its changing focus from nearly documentary realism to visually beautiful folk-tale fantasy.

Adapted from the 2000 children's novel of the same name by Deborah Ellis, it tells the story of 11-year-old Parvana and her beleaguered family in Kabul, Afghanistan's capital city.

This is no Disney princess adventure. With the Taliban imposing harsh Islamic restraints on her city, Parvana's daily life is brutish. She works in a marketplace from a blanket spread on the ground alongside her father, a former history teacher crippled after the bombing of his school. The soldiers use thou-shalt-not beatings to violently control intellectuals, repress women and keep public life under control.

When her literate, learned father is imprisoned, Parvana cuts off her hair and moves across the city as a boy to provide for her mother, older sister and baby brother. With the aid of a streetwise old friend, she enables the family to scrape by.

Their only respite comes when Parvana tells them an imaginative adventure of a brave boy battling ghostly skeletons, fierce jaguars and a wicked elephant king. Her story is presented as a separate movie within the movie, gorgeously rendered in vibrant colors and handsome design. When each chapter in the story is over, Parvana and her family return to a gritty, sun-scorched city.

The film, which is in English, is sharply directed by Nora Twomey ("The Secret of Kells"), who conveys the characters' expressions and gestures with impressive grace. It is produced by Angelina Jolie, who has directed similar intense and scary stories with "Unbroken" and "In the Land of Blood and Honey."

What they have delivered is soul-achingly sad, starting off in reality and drifting into fantasies that force Parvana to face real life. In her dreamlike battle epic, she works out what she needs to do to move forward and find closure. Her rebellion against authority only carries her so far in her mission to reconnect with her jailed father.

Distressing as it is, the film draws you into the characters' lives. This is the first chapter in an award-winning series of novels by Ellis about her headstrong heroine Parvana. Give it a try. You may see her again.

Colin Covert • 612-673-7186 • @colincovert

The Breadwinner

★★★ out of 4 stars

Rating: PG-13 for thematic material including violent images.

Theater: Lagoon.