When it comes to contemporary animation, we live in a reality where the majority of studios making theatrical films in the medium are all-in on CG. Pixar, Walt Disney Animation, Illumination…they’ve all poo-pooed traditional 2D animation. This is why fans of the medium have to root out and celebrate the smaller studios consistently committed to providing audiences with brilliant, creative animation that honors the origins of the tradition. Ireland’s Cartoon Saloon is one of those proverbial salmon swimming upstream going up against the ones and zeroes, and thank goodness for their tenacity. Their latest film, My Father’s Dragon, is directed by studio co-founder Nora Twomey and based on the beloved children’s book of the same name created by Ruth Stiles Gannett. This adaptation brings to life, in gorgeous 2D animation, a kaleidoscope of surreal visuals and strange creatures encountered by a little boy and his dragon friend. Theirs is an intimate story about processing fear, especially speaking to those children wrestling with the burdens of having to emotionally navigate real-world stresses that invade their lives too soon.
Like Gannett’s book, My Father’s Dragon is also narrated (sparsely) by the unseen grown child (Mary Kay Place) of the story’s protagonist, Elmer Elevator (Jacob Tremblay). She sets up an adventure Elmer had in his childhood that not only utilized his talent for finding things, but was also life-changing. It occurred at a pivotal point in his young life, when his single mother Dela (Golshifteh Farahani) had to sell their small grocery store and move to the big city for work. Impoverished, losing their beloved livelihood and their community, Elmer and Dela are adrift in a much darker, much more dour world—one that they aren’t sure how to navigate.
Seeing Elmer so upset, Dela tries to bolster his hope by pointing out a boarded-up storefront that they can save towards, one that can perhaps be their new store. But it’s a pipe dream that Elmer, unfortunately, latches onto as his new goal. He utilizes the few items, like a cracked mirror and box of rubber bands, that he was able to save from their former store to find ways to add to their very meager savings, but that dries up as Dela has to use the money in pursuit of a new job. It breaks Elmer’s heart, which prompts him to have a huge row with his mom and run away. A stray cat (Whoopi Goldberg) who benefited from his kindness follows him and tells him about a dragon that lives out on an island that can save his shop dream. Yes, Elmer is dumbfounded that a cat can talk, but it’s the gateway to a whole world of critters that he’ll encounter on his way to the dragon’s Wild Island.
Twomey and her team of artists have created both real and magical worlds that look ripped from the pages of a top-shelf children’s book, which works perfectly with the Roald-Dahl-meets-Studio-Ghibli vibe of the film. The color palette is bold and layered with flora and fauna that is familiar, yet skewed towards the magical and exaggerated. And all of the creatures have delightfully original designs, featuring caricature-style flourishes that make every wild character, from the macaques to the rhinos and the crocodiles, feel fresh and slightly surreal. There are also myriad, clever, repeated design motifs that carry through from the human world to the wild world, which augments the care infused into the film. Every frame has something gorgeous to look at and get lost in, which is what you want from an animated film where imagination is key to the story.
Equally important, My Father’s Dragon also has something quietly profound to say about the impact of change and hope in a young person’s life. Both Elmer and his new dragon friend, Boris (Gaten Matarazzo), are essentially kids who have the weight of the world on their shoulders. Elmer feels responsible for restoring the life he lost with his mother, and runs away to try and fast-track that return to “normal” for them. Boris is the flighty, enthusiastic youngster saddled with the generational legacy role of saving the Wild Island from sinking into the sea. If he can do it, he’ll eventually earn the ability to transition into a mythical After Dragon. Regardless of how sincere or competent (in Elmer’s case) these two earnest young heroes are, the movie makes a clear case that they shouldn’t have to take on roles that are so heavy and beyond their years. But what child—what with divorce, sudden financial upheaval or, in our COVID reality, great loss of life—hasn’t been in Elmer and Boris’ colorful shoes? Not enough stories geared towards children have the guts and the empathy to take on the anxiety and responsibility children carry when their worlds are turned upside-down, or when they’re asked to grow up far too fast by necessity. Twomey and writer Meg LeFauve handle that topic with a great amount of compassion and sympathy for not only Elmer and Boris, but all the characters experiencing fear and a lack of control on Wild Island and back home.
But My Father’s Dragon also empowers kids to embrace and celebrate their inner bravery and ingenuity. Elmer uses the simple items in his bag to overcome some major challenges on Wild Island, which says a lot about the power of accessing what you retain from a chapter in your life, even when you have to move forward. And while Boris is far more reticent to embrace his calling, he throws himself into helping Elmer and traversing Wild Island to find options to get out of his particular burden—and also help the creatures who are terrified of losing their home. Tremblay and Matarazzo make a great odd couple: They are very different characters but there is a connection of experience, and honesty about their shared fears, which bonds them closer together and achieves emotional catharsis in the last act.
My Father’s Dragon is another top-tier addition into the Cartoon Saloon library of contemporary animation classics. Twomey and her artists have done the magic of staying within the illustration aesthetic of their studio’s signature approach, while expanding that into a more surrealistic and fanciful approach that feels individual and unique. It will especially appeal to the sensitive kids (and adults) in your life, and it most definitely meets the high standards Cartoon Saloon continues to make in the medium.
Director: Nora Twomey
Writer: Meg LeFauve
Starring: Jacob Tremblay, Gaten Matarazzo, Golshifteh Farahani, Dianne Wiest, Rita Moreno
Release Date: November 11, 2022 (Netflix)
Tara Bennett is a Los Angeles-based writer covering film, television and pop culture for publications such as SFX Magazine, Total Film, SYFY Wire and more. She’s also written books on Sons of Anarchy, Outlander, Fringe, The Story of Marvel Studios and the upcoming The Art of Avatar: The Way of Water. You can follow her on Twitter @TaraDBennett or Instagram @TaraDBen.