REVIEW: My Father’s Dragon [2022]

Rating: 7 out of 10.
  • Rating: PG | Runtime: 99 minutes
    Release Date: November 11th, 2022 (Ireland)
    Studio: Cartoon Saloon / Netflix
    Director(s): Nora Twomey
    Writer(s): Meg LeFauve / Ruth Stiles Gannett (book)

I’m feeling really cautious!

When the only home Elmer Elevator (Jacob Tremblay) ever knew becomes deserted and the grocery his mother (Golshifteh Farahani‘s Dela) owned is foreclosed, the duo is forced to move to the big city of Nevergreen amidst its hustle, bustle, industrial pollution, and mistrustful inhabitants. Gone are the days of knowing your neighbors and finding them the perfect item hiding in one of the shop’s corners. Now it’s scrounging every penny in the hopes of paying rent to Mrs. McClaren (Rita Moreno) so as not to be evicted onto the streets. Dela lies to Elmer to protect him from the dire straits they’re in. She tells him they’ll save the money and open a new store in the city. But that dream’s comfort is short-lived once fear takes hold.

Director Nora Twomey and screenwriter Meg LeFauve (adapting from Ruth Stiles Gannett‘s Newbery-winning children’s book) must therefore shift focus from the crippling existential dread of an uprooted life to magical wonders found in plain sight. In the case of My Father’s Dragon, the catalyst is a cat (Whoopi Goldberg). Hoping to repay his gift of milk, she tells Elmer of a dragon that needs saving on a far-off island in the middle of the ocean. Make friends with him and the boy can earn all the money he needs to open a new store for his mother by selling tickets for dragon rides. What she doesn’t tell him, however, is that the beast is but a boy himself. And Wild Island is inhabited by sharp teeth and claws.

There’s also the long-standing history behind Boris the Dragon’s (Gaten Matarazzo) presence atop its volcano’s summit. While Saiwa the Gorilla (Ian McShane) has imprisoned him there to fly their sinking island into the sky and save its creatures from drowning, Boris arrived on his own accord. A prophecy states that a ten-year-old dragon will come to Wild Island and save it from being lost to the water every hundred years. It’s therefore his turn to do his kind’s duty, yet neither he nor Saiwa know how it is he’s supposed to accomplish that goal. So, the ropes keep Boris tethered. The fire and water keep him afraid. And Saiwa’s unwavering need to protect his fellow animals keeps him ruthless towards that goal. Fear of oblivion drives them all.

At the heart of this adventure lies our necessity to let go and own our emotions. And it’s about allowing yourself to accept the help of others when you feel as though you’re completely alone. This is true for Dela trying to keep herself and Elmer afloat without a job—quick to quiet his desire to be her partner in this new chapter because she wanted him to be able to remain a child. It’s true of Saiwa telling Wild Island that what he was doing to Boris was what was needed to be done despite no one there having been alive a century ago to confirm or deny plans hatched in desperation. Neither is a bad person. If anything, they both love too much. Perspective is lost.

And that same sense of uncertainty falls to the others. Saiwa’s right-hand man Kwan (Chris O’Dowd) manifests his fear as anger. Boris becomes crippled by his phobias and Elmer rejects the thought of allowing himself to admit he’s not in total control. To whose end, though? Elmer’s mind is a single-track to buying a grocery and putting his life back together. That’s why he let Soda the Whale (Judy Greer) take him to Wild Island. It’s why he’s willing to help Boris escape. It’s why he’d even help save the animals if doing so ultimately benefited him on that pursuit. At this specific moment, friendship is transactional. Until Elmer realizes this error and chooses altruism instead, he’ll never escape that fear. Love should never be conditional.

It’s a necessary lesson to be learned and Twomey and company are very willing to tell it with the seriousness children films demand (despite the penchant for so many studios to dumb things down with colors and songs as distraction from their hollow shells). This is a trait that Cartoon Saloon has been stalwart in preserving through all their films, but one especially prevalent in the director’s prior film The Breadwinner. So, while the marketing is quick to mention Tomm Moore‘s Celtic trio of animations under their shared banner, My Father’s Dragon does skew more towards Twomey’s solo debut. And superficial or not, casting an Iranian in Farahani for the role of Elmer’s mother means something too. Twomey is consciously diversifying the studio’s portfolio beyond its Kilkenny origins.

The animation is flawless—two-dimensional with heavy contour shading to help everything pop. The cast is wonderful with Tremblay and Matarazzo imbuing a ton of heart (and tears once the climax demands they look beyond the lark of their selfish desires) as side characters go above and beyond courtesy of the likes of Dianne Wiest, Jackie Earle Haley, and Alan Cumming amongst those mentioned above and many others. And beyond the main story lies an obvious comparison point between the “dangers” of Wild Island with its thoughtful yet overwhelmed “beasts” and the isolating, dog-eat-dog nature of “civilization” via Nevergreen. You simply cannot judge a book by its cover. Not when the prevalence of fearmongering prevents us from acknowledging another’s struggle before even listening long enough to offer help.

[1-3] MY FATHER’S DRAGON – From five-time Academy Award®-nominated animation studio Cartoon Saloon (The Secret of Kells, Song of the Sea, Wolfwalkers) and Academy Award®-nominated director Nora Twomey (The Breadwinner), comes an exquisite film inspired by the Newbery-honored children’s book from author Ruth Stiles Gannett. Struggling to cope after a move to the city with his mother, Elmer (Jacob Tremblay) runs away in search of Wild Island and a young dragon called Boris (Gaten Matarazzo) who waits to be rescued. Elmer’s adventures introduce him to ferocious beasts, a mysterious island and the friendship of a lifetime. Cr: Netflix © 2022

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