A film review by Craig J. Koban December 15, 2022

Rank: #21

MY FATHER'S DRAGON  jjj

2022, PG, 99 mins.

Jacob Tremblay as Elmer Elevator (voice)  /  Gaten Matarazzo as Boris The Dragon (voice)  /  Golshifteh Farahani as Dela Elevator (voice)  /  Dianne Wiest as Iris the Rhinoceros (voice)  /  Rita Moreno as Mrs. McClaren (voice)  /  Chris O'Dowd as Kwan the Macaque (voice)  /  Judy Greer as Soda the Whale (voice)  /  Alan Cumming as Cornelius the Crocodile (voice)  /  Jackie Earle Haley as Tamir the Tarsier (voice)  /  Mary Kay Place as Narrator (voice)  /  Leighton Meester as Sasha (voice)  /  Spence Moore II as George (voice)  /  Adam Brody as (voice)  /  Charlyne Yi as (voice)  /  Maggie Lincoln as (voice)  /  Whoopi Goldberg as Cat (voice)  /  Ian McShane as Saiwa (voice)

Directed by Nora Twomey  /  Written by Meg LeFauve and John Morgan, based on the book by Ruth Stiles Gannett
 

 

 

ORIGINAL FILM

The Netflix produced Irish-American animated fantasy MY FATHER'S DRAGON is another entry on an already bravura list of works from Cartoon Saloon, who recently made the masterful WOLFWALKERS (that proudly made my list of the TEN BEST FILMS of 2020).  Featuring some absolutely gorgeous 2D animation (which is, sadly enough, a slowly dying art form as far as movie releases go), hypnotic and dreamlike imagery, and powerful themes of friendship, bravery, and tackling the fear of the unknown, director Nora Twomey's film displays loving reference for the original 1948 children's novel of the same name by Ruth Stiles Gannett while giving us the meticulously sumptuous handcrafted animation that we've come to expect from the studio.  I can't quite say that this is on the same qualitative level as WOLFWALKERS, not to mention that this new entry from Cartoon Saloon seems to regrettably Disney-ify the material to make it more easily accessible for young viewers.  Still, MY FATHER'S DRAGON is an extraordinary accomplishment on top of being wondrously entertaining. 

Now, there have been many family films centered on a premise of a young kid befriending a majestic creature and going on a series of wild adventures in a fantastical realm far, far away from the horrors of the real world (we'd be here all day discussing them), and MY FATHER'S DRAGON is based on source material so relatively old that its film adaptation may sometimes feel like it's pilfering from other past genre exercises.  But where Twomey and screenwriters Meg LeFauve and John Morgan succeed with the age old material is in how well they dramatically ground the characters in the earlier stages in highly relatable everyday woes.  The opening of the story introduces us to Elmer (voiced well by Jacob Tremblay), who at one point in his young life was happy and content with his mother, Dela (Golshifteh Farahani), with both of them running a local shop that was a labor of love.  Tragically, the ravages of an economic recession hits them hard, and Della is forced to close their business and move to Nevergreen City for a fresh start.  Starting over for the cash strapped Della is not easy, though, as she has great difficulty securing employment and paying the rent for their ramshackle apartment.  She tries to put on a brave and confident face for Elmer, who's disappointed to see how far the two of them have fallen.  Elmer makes it his mission to reclaim their decimated family business, but his mother wisely tells him that achieving that overnight is a hopeless dream.   

 

 

Down on his luck and searching for meaning and better times to come, Elmer has a fateful meeting one day with a local stray cat (Whoopi Goldberg) that just so happens to speak fluent English, much to the boy's shock.  She offers him an exclusive chance for financial redemption to travel to the magical Wild Island, where Elmer can locate and collect a dragon and become rich and prosperous after he reveals it to the world.  Elmer needs a vessel to get to said island, so he hops on the back of a giant whale, Soda (Judy Greer), and after the long journey at sea he finally arrives at his destination to discover that it's overrun by a rich menagerie of animals and creatures. The main alpha male leader of all them is Saiwa (commandingly voiced by Ian McShane), but his vise-like grip on law and order on Wild Island is threatened by the presence of Elmer, who soon enough does cross paths with the sought after dragon in Boris (Gaten Matarazzo), who appears to be enslaved and is forced to keep the sinking island afloat with what limited power he possesses.  Boris wants to be free of his servitude, but he also wants to become a much more advanced version of his species that can attain the powers that we often associate with dragons.  Elmer agrees to help the poor creature in exchange for him coming back home to aid his family.  Predictably, Saiwa is angered by this new union and stops at nothing to ensure that Boris never leaves the island. 

I was surprised by how richly moving the opening sections of MY FATHER'S DRAGON were, especially in showing the happier days of Elmer and Dela in their cozy and successful shop, only to then have their world and livelihood come crashing down and without a safety net.  When forced to relocate from their quaint town to the big city and dealing with a dilapidated shack of an apartment run by an acid tongued landlord (voiced menacingly by Rita Moreno), Dela and Elmer start to realize the gravity of their dire situation.  When the mother burns through what's left of their savings, things get even worse, leading to this one harmonious mother/son relationship being shattered.  MY FATHER'S DRAGON doesn't shy away from the inherent darkness of the storyline and it packs an emotional wallop during its first third that echoes our own economically challenging times. 

And like all great works of fantasy, MY FATHER'S DRAGON uses its otherworldly settings and characters to delve into other meaningful themes that will resonate and strike a chord with viewers young and old alike. Fear plays out a lot for many of the characters, especially in how Elmer is deathly afraid of what's to come for his destitute family and Boris being scared that he'll never be allowed to ascend to the powerful heights of his kind.  Elmer and Boris are drawn to each other in terms of become mutual support systems, and as their friendship bond grows deeper as they're able to challenge obstacles that come their way on Wild Island.  Of course, some challenges weigh more heavily on their souls and - at one crucial point - become almost too burdensome to bare.  I appreciated that MY FATHER'S DRAGON features its characters as both head strong, but riddled with doubts and insecurities.  One of the central messages of the film is that sometimes the future is not set and that easy answers and solutions to problems are not always available.  This is a potent one, to be sure, and shows how sensitive minded Twomey and company are with the material. 

And, yeah, sometimes I find it hard to continue to come up with superlatives to describe the sensational work of the dedicated artisans at Cartoon Saloon, but here as they did with WOLFWALKERS they reinforce why the classical pleasures of 2D animation still deserves to be in as high regard - if not higher - than anything in the CG animated canon of Disney/Pixar.  There's a primal, elemental nature to the imagery shown in MY FATHER'S DRAGON, which is not to say that this film looks primitive or archaic to modern eyes.  Cartoon Saloon's less-is-more minimalist approach works small wonders for the storytelling and allows the spirited vocal talent and character relationships and dynamics to shine brightly through.  Twomey does a brilliant job of juxtaposing the dreary visuals of the depression laden aspects of Elmer and Dela's post-business collapse lives with that of the vivacious explosion of color that typifies Elmer's journey to Wild Island (it aesthetically mirrors, in many respects, Dorothy's trek from Kansas to Oz).  I still prefer the more eye popping abstract extremes of WOLFWALKERS, but there's no denying that MY FATHER'S DRAGON is joyous to behold in its purposeful simplicity.   

But maybe simplicity is also a detriment here too.  MY FATHER'S DRAGON represents the studio - somewhat disappointingly - aiming to appeal to a younger audience and be more accessible overall.  That's not shameful in any respect, but those expecting the level of storytelling and visual maturity of WOLFWALKERS may be setting themselves up for disappointment here.  Plus, all of the creatures and animals that populate Wild Island are engineered - when all is said and done - to be approachable, adorable, and more than a bit toyetic, which distractingly veers MY FATHER'S DRAGON into House of Mouse territory.  I don't want to end my review of this film by saying that it's a lesser work from Cartoon Saloon, because that would seem to imply that I wasn't taken in with it.  This might be their least challenging and safe animated film, but it's still a marvelous achievement for a style of animation that simply isn't embraced by the mainstream as much as it should.  MY FATHER'S DRAGON hits the right emotional beats when it needs to as well, and when warm hearted and assured storytelling is married to enchanting animation it should be celebrated.  And I'll still take a more modestly scaled and slightly lesser Cartoon Saloon achievement over any factory made, corporate branded CG animated film fare that populates cineplexes with maybe too much frequency and repetitive, conceptual sameness.     

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