MY FATHER'S DRAGON ½
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
produced Irish-American animated fantasy MY FATHER'S DRAGON is another
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.
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.
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