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My Father’s Dragon: An Uneven but Still Enchanting Adventure

Probably the weakest of the Cartoon Saloon studio’s output, the quality of My Father’s Dragon is a strong testament to the consistently high standard of their work. Truth be told, the issues I have with My Father’s Dragon are nearly all story-based. Since the film is an adaptation of a book series which I haven’t read, I’m inclined to be generous on that score. Adapting a beloved children’s book, especially a trilogy, is tough and, although there may be story issues that are artifacts of specific production decisions like condensing the trilogy down into a single film, as I gather this may have done, it can be a no-win scenario to adapt a property of which audiences already have specific expectations.

The film starts off strong, with an opening that’s as good as anything the studio has made so far that will immediately plant its emotional hooks in you. The father of the title is actually a young boy, Elmer (Jacob Tremblay), brought to the big city by his mother (Golshifteh Farhani) after their store folds due to their town’s failing economy. From the era of the original books (published in 1948) and the approximate aesthetic of the city, we can assume this is as a result of The Great Depression, when many small towns and family businesses met similar fates. Perhaps young Elmer would soon be enlisting, or maybe that explains his own father’s absence. His mother promises this is just a temporary setback until they set up a new store, but growing financial concerns start to set in and disillusion our young hero.

This whole first fifteen minutes or so is fantastic. It’s a devastating scenario where the conflict between mother and son is extremely well depicted, uncomfortably challenging and realistic but not so overdrawn or complex younger audiences will struggle to relate or comprehend it. It quickly establishes an unbreakable bond between mother and son and immediately sees it tested. The scene where Elmer stands at his mother’s side, watching in desperation as she slowly empties their precious savings jar into the payphone as she hunts for jobs is absolutely heartbreaking.

Afterwards, Elmer begins his retreat into fantasy whereupon a stray cat (Whoopi Goldberg) begins talking and tells him of a dangerous island where a dragon can be found and tamed by whomever rescues it from its Sisyphean task: beating its wings to keep the island from sinking into the sea. So begins his magical journey, believing a pet dragon will provide some means to alleviate his family’s financial woes. It’s a dragon, after all!

This quest is the main part of My Father’s Dragon, and it’s where the issues do start to creep in. It’s a common trope in children’s fantasies, establishing a real-world conflict and then have the young hero stumble into a magical kingdom whose conflict mirrors their own life. The trouble is, although the opening establishes several clear conflicts. Elmer and his mother are being crushed by financial pressures, their landlady (Rita Moreno) is callous and unsympathetic to their situation, Elmer is being bullied by some local kids and feels like his mother has been lying to him when she promised him everything would be okay. These are only mirrored in the vaguest sense by the journey Elmer is taken on and certainly aren’t in any way solved by it. This makes for a pretty weak emotional arc and the resolution in the epilogue feels unearned as a result.

Moreover, the story on the island is pretty involved and convoluted, with a lot of new characters and conflicts to deal with. Principle among these is Boris the Dragon (Gaten Matarazzo), who’s just a kid himself with no more an idea of how to save himself and the island than Elmer does. So the two are left to search for answers while Boris’s captors, a troupe of primates led by the Gorilla Saiwa (Ian McShane) chase them down. Both this story and its resolution are pretty messy, exposition heavy, and frequently flip-flop in tone. At times, the story can be shockingly mature and emotionally complex, at others it’s goofy and childish.

There are issues with My Father’s Dragon, and its story doesn’t really work on the whole, despite some inspired moments and challenging ideas. That the film still works and is consistently enjoyable, often enchanting and occasionally wondrous is largely down to two main factors. One you may have picked up on already from some of the names already mentioned among the astonishing voice cast, which includes besides those principals Judy Greer, Chris O’Dowd, Jackie Earle Haley, Alan Cumming and Dianne Wiest! As one might hope with such an illustrious lineup, the voice performances are all fantastic, with every character immediately credible and vivid the minute they open their mouths. Among such a cast-list, the youngsters excel themselves the most however, with Matarazzo and the always superb Tremblay anchoring the film with their dynamic innocence and sensitive chemistry. Matarazzo manages to make a potentially insufferable character genuinely cute and endearing, while Tremblay hits every emotional beat perfectly, even when the story doesn’t.

The other big element in the film’s corner is something we should always expect of Cartoon Saloon whose commitment to traditional animation has resulted in some of the most beautiful and unique-looking films in recent memory. My Father’s Dragon might actually be their least visually impressive work yet and it’s still a delight to behold with a picture-book world rendered in warm blues, greens and lavenders. The film looks and sounds so lovely that it’s easy to take any few clips from the movie and make it look like a triumph. It’s only when you take a few steps back and look at the whole shape of it that you realize the plot and story aren’t quite as sinuously intertwined as one might hope.

So despite the occasional misgiving, I still definitely recommend My Father’s Dragon. The Netflix offering is not the best work of the studio or its director Nora Twomey. It’s a definite step down from her previous solo works The Breadwinner and Wolfwalkers, but might make a positive introduction to younger audiences who might not be ready for those ones yet.

Written by Hal Kitchen

A graduate of the University of Kent, Reviews Editor Hal Kitchen joined Film Obsessive as a freelance writer in May 2020 following their postgraduate studies in Film with a specialization in Gender Theory and Studies. In November 2020 Hal assumed their role as Reviews Editor. Since then, Hal has written extensively for the site, writing analytical and critical pieces on film, and has represented the site at international film festivals including The London Film Festival and Panic Fest.

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