If you’re familiar with Cartoon Saloon’s previous work – Song of the Sea, The Breadwinner, Wolfwalkers – My Father’s Dragon should have you excited. The Irish animation studio is known for its beautifully animated films that explore complex, mature themes. My Father’s Dragon continues that path, even if it doesn’t quite soar as high as their previous film Wolfwalkers.
My Father’s Dragon follows young Elmer (voiced by Jacob Tremblay), an expert at ‘getting things’. When his mother’s little shop is closed, the pair move to the city Elmer immediately hates. Their small apartment has noisy pipes, and his mother is constantly stressed and uses their savings on phone calls to find work.
Frustrated, Elmer runs off, and a talking cat tells him he can go to an island with a dragon and all his worries will disappear if he can rescue that dragon. Elmer finds the dragon, Boris (Gaten Matarazzo), who also has a task; he must save the island from sinking into the sea. Unfortunately, Boris has no clue how to do this or much of anything. Still, surely Elmer can figure it all out.
Not that I was expecting anything less from Cartoon Saloon, but My Father’s Dragon is beautifully animated. It’s enchanting and full of colour, although the nameless city Elmer moves to is perpetually wet and dark. The strange creatures and beasts that live on the island are gorgeously designed, mostly cute and drawn in broad lines, but detailed and varied in their forms.
The voice cast is stacked with big names: Whoopi Goldberg as the talking cat and Ian McShane as the villainous gorilla. As so often in Cartoon Saloon films, there often isn’t good or evil or right or wrong; just grey areas, flaws and bravery.
Tremblay’s voice brings an innocence to Elmer while Stranger Things' Gaten Matarazzo is hilarious as Boris the Dragon. Elmer is easily excited and a kid with his sense of wonder intact. Still, director Nora Twomey refuses to treat Elmer as just a child. No, even children can be flawed, and they often act rashly. Cartoon Saloon has always treated children and their stories with respect and maturity. Perhaps that’s why they’ve been so successful and are now one of the world’s most highly regarded animation studios.
My Father’s Dragon is based on a book of the same name by Ruth Stiles Gannett. Although published in 1948, the story feels relevant and resonant. The animation, which is in stark contrast to something like Pixar’s flashy, completely computer-generated animation, helps tremendously with this, creating a timeless style for the film. There is magic and whimsicality in buckets in My Father’s Dragon.
The film’s only, minor flaw is that it never reaches the highs of Wolfwalkers, the studio’s best film to date. As its own film, My Father’s Dragon is lovely and bright, but Wolfwalkers truly showed what can be done with this level of skillful storytelling and creative freedom that it’s hard not to compare the two films.
Netflix has got the film’s distribution rights, which seems like a shame. My Father’s Dragon is such a visually thrilling film that deserves to be seen on the big screen to fully immerse into its story. But at the end of the day, it’s all about the story. This one will work whether watched on a phone, laptop, or cinema screen.
My Father’s Dragon received its World Premiere at BFI London Film Festival on October 8 before streaming on Netflix November 11.