My Father’s Dragon, 2022.
Directed by Nora Twomey.
Featuring the voice talents of Jacob Tremblay, Gaten Matarazzo, Golshifteh Farahani, Dianne Wiest, Rita Moreno, Chris O’Dowd, Judy Greer, Alan Cumming, Yara Shahidi, Jackie Earle Haley, Mary Kay Place, Leighton Meester, Spence Moore II, Adam Brody, Charlyne Yi, Maggie Lincoln, Whoopi Goldberg, and Ian McShane.
Elmer Elevator searches for a captive Dragon on Wild Island and finds much more than he could ever have anticipated.
The latest from prolific Irish hand-drawn animation studio Cartoon Saloon, My Father’s Dragon, surprisingly and decidedly leans toward children, containing everything from colorful and cutesy talking animals to lightweight adventure shenanigans.
Directed by The Breadwinner‘s Nora Twomey (with a script from Meg LeFauve, based on the book by Ruth Stiles Gannett), My Father’s Dragon doesn’t feel as sharply written or invigorating as the studio’s past work, settling on centering a routine connection between a boy and dragon. If it weren’t for the vivid color palette (sometimes impressively bouncing off characters to create beautiful reflections), majestic Wild Island design inspired by Celtic imagery, and distinct character styles, it would be easy to wrongly mistake the film for a generic Netflix offering or lesser Disney work.
While My Father’s Dragon is a softer change of pace from the studio, there is some joy in that the fundamentals and craftsmanship are solid and beautifully executed so that one also wouldn’t feel like parents would be insulting their children using it as a distraction. There is still artistry alongside standard messaging regarding the true nature of friendships, finding strength, and courage. Some other intriguing themes will also entertain adults, involving fear as a powerful tool and a mother and son trying to understand one another while facing financial uncertainty that drives an emotional rift between them, and a timely plea to pass down truthful information from generation to generation (something pertinent to the plot and also explored with bedtime story narrative framing from the protagonist’s offspring).
By the time My Father’s Dragon reaches a point where the child now understands his mother and why she momentarily breaks apart and says things she doesn’t mean while also learning about resiliency and how to stave off cynicism, embrace working together, and make progress by doing, the film is a well-rounded piece that ultimately accomplishes its admirable intentions. However, the majority of that process involves Elmer (voiced by Jacob Tremblay, cementing himself as a reliable name in animation between this and Pixar’s outstanding Luca) lured to Wild Island (by a talking cat voiced by Whoopi Goldberg and a whale voiced by Judy Greer) in need of saving from sinking into the sea.
The metaphor here is that Elmer and his mom (voiced by Golshifteh Farahani) are sinking further and further into debt. The previous grocery store closed down (the entire town was apparently hit hard), forcing them to start a new chapter of their lives in Evergreen City, with dreams of scrounging up enough money to open a new store. On the island, silverback gorilla Saiwa (voiced by Ian McShane) has a dragon restrained, elevating the land above water. That’s what past creatures have instructed him to do (there are engravings depicting monstrous fire-breathing dragons coming to their aid), but this is a short-term solution as you as quickly come to the conclusion that the process is not working.
Following some silly antics, Elmer frees the dragon under the impression that he will be able to solve the family’s problems back home. That’s what he thought, anyway, until realizing that Boris the Dragon (spiritedly voiced by Gaten Matarazzo, but with such childlike naivety and in the sense that it will quickly become grating to anyone over the age of 10) is small, harmless, and now has broken wings. To achieve his full potential, he has to undergo a ritual, which might give him the power to save Wild Island. But mostly, these two must put their heads together and find an alternative solution.
There’s no shame in admitting that it’s difficult for an adult to stick with My Father’s Dragon for roughly the first two-thirds of its running time. Visually, it is dazzling and reaches the same benchmark of quality standards Cartoon Saloon has set for itself through years of excellence. And it’s not that the story and characters are empty, which is far from the contrary, considering the third act pulls everything together into a riveting, emotional experience for adults and children. It’s just hard to say everything up until then is for anyone other than young kids (especially the attempts at comedy), meaning that the minds of older viewers will drift. The silver lining here is that this is magical and lovingly constructed with wonder worth showing those children.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, or email me at [email protected]