My Father’s Dragon is the latest release from Irish animation studio Cartoon Saloon, the outfit responsible for Wolfwalkers and The Breadwinner, amongst others. This newest film, developed alongside Netflix Animation, continues their streak of gorgeous 2D animated original tales with charming sensibilities and rich themes while also seemingly attempting to present something with more mainstream appeal. As successful as My Father’s Dragon is in that first regard, the latter effort can, unfortunately, be felt as strongly, as the story does away with the specificity that had made previous Cartoon Saloon films feel so unique and memorable.
Based on the 1948 children’s book of the same name, My Father’s Dragon is directed by Cartoon Saloon co-founder Nora Twomey and written by Inside Out scribe Meg LeFauve. We follow a young boy named Elmer (Jacob Tremblay) as he moves to the city (aptly named Nevergreen) with his mother (Golshifteh Farahani) who is struggling to make ends meet after closing their small-town convenience store. After an argument with his mother, Elmer charges off, vowing to make enough money that they can open a new store in the city so things can go back to normal.
Following directions from a talking cat (Whoopi Goldberg), Elmer sails off to a nearby island in search of a dragon who he hopes could be his ticket to fortune. On arrival, he meets Boris (Gaten Matarazzo), an anxious young dragon who has been ensnared in the task of pulling the island from the sea. After saving Boris, he reveals that there is a way he can save the island for the next hundred years, as has become a rite of passage for the world’s dragons. The two set off to complete the task, against the wishes of the island’s inhabitants who had made their peace with the constant sinking and rising.
On its face, My Father’s Dragon is a simple tale of friendship but as we watch the two working towards their goal of creating a new future, the secondary plot of Elmer coming to accept his new circumstances is revealed. This is where the film comes together most perfectly, with the two leads being incredibly endearing avatars for these ideas. Jacob Tremblay is predictably great, however, the standout performance is Gaten Matarazzo, building on the comic potential that had made him such a fan favorite on Stranger Things, though he is almost failed by some occasionally cliche material. The cast is rounded out by a surprising collection of big names, including Alan Cumming as Cornelius the crocodile and a world-weary Ian McShane as the island’s gorilla leader. Whereas the studio’s other projects featured big stars, this ensemble is the first hint that Cartoon Saloon is aiming for something much broader.
Where My Father’s Dragon stumbles is that in aid of creating a product with a broader appeal, the cultural specificity that had made previous Cartoon Saloon films so memorable and fascinating is not present. The film takes place in an unnamed country between a small town and an intentionally archetypal big city. There is a universality to these elements that will no doubt allow My Father’s Dragon to resonate with a lot of people but at the cost of the thematic specificity that some audiences might expect. Not to say that the narrative is totally out of step with the real world, its beats surrounding housing and an increasing cost of living are as timely as they are tragically always familiar, yet it is thematically vague – in a way that can possibly be traced back to its writer’s history at Pixar.
Though its images are less specific, as with all of the studio’s projects, My Father’s Dragon looks incredible, with 2D animation that feels as inspired by classic Disney movies as it does anime. The fantastical island with its population of strange animals are specifically reminiscent of Ghibli. The film’s compositions are big and beautiful but also simple, with locations defined first and foremost by big shapes and bright colors. The island in general is a wonderful setting, with a sense that it is truly alive, inhaling and exhaling with the highs and lows of the plot.
My Father’s Dragon is a really touching reminder of the enduring power of 2D animation to tell timeless stories in impossible worlds. Its messaging is moving and surprisingly mature, and it’s impossible to not see something of your own life in its story. Most importantly, as Inside Out had done before, it puts the fact that it is for children first, with storytelling that sincerely believes in their feelings.