Director: Nora Twomey
Cast: Gaten Matarazzo, Jacob Tremblay, Whoopi Goldberg, Judy Greer, Chris O’Dowd, Ian McShane
Released: 11th November, 2022 (Netflix)
As the old adage goes, there are three guarantees in life – death, taxes, and the persistence of the obnoxious notion that animation is somehow only for kids. Not only is the latter of those three things a massively reductive stance that suggests things that are aimed at a younger audience somehow inherently represent “lesser” art, but it’s also flagrantly untrue. For the last 13 years now, no single animation studio has made a stronger case to the contrary than Kilkenny-based outfit Cartoon Saloon. From the emotional intricacy of the Irish Folklore trilogy to the political heft of The Breadwinner, set in Taliban-controlled Kabul, the studio’s works have been as revered for what they have to say to viewers of all ages as they have for how their signature brand of beautiful 2.5D animation says it.
Now, with the arrival of My Father’s Dragon, a narratively loose but spiritually faithful adaptation of Ruth Stiles Gannett’s classic 1948 children’s novel, Cartoon Saloon have made their most young audience orientated work yet, fart jokes and all. The result may be something a little more slight and a little less nuanced than the studio’s past triumphs, but it’s a characteristically charming and wildly inventive film nevertheless, one which manages to make a winning play for the child inside whilst finding surprisingly touching ways to teach us a thing or two about growing up and the necessity of fear in finding courage.
Directed by Oscar-nominated studio co-founder Nora Twomey (The Breadwinner) and written by Pixar alum Meg LeFauve (Inside Out, The Good Dinosaur), whose experience unpicking the complexities of adolescent emotional development and telling boy-and-his-dog type tales proves priceless here, My Father’s Dragon centres around young Elmer Elevator (Jacob Tremblay). His tale is tenderly framed, mirroring the book, as a bedtime story being recounted by his now elderly daughter (Mary Kay Place). When we first meet Elmer, he’s using his talent for “getting things” to help his immigrant mother, Dela (Golshifteh Farahani), with running their grocery store in a sunny slice of suburbia. When the Elevators fall on financial hard times, though – the film’s vague period setting is deliberately obtuse to give the story a timeless quality, but the Great Depression’s shadow looms nevertheless – they’re forced to up sticks and move to the tellingly named, dourly drawn Nevergreen City.
All towering grey monoliths, perpetual rain, and sensorily assaultive noise, Nevergreen does ‘city as labyrinth of danger’ as well as any number of film noir offerings – if Philip Marlowe barged past Elmer as he tries in vain to flog elastic bands to help his mum, you wouldn’t bat an eye. It’s presented to us as the kind of place where the only light to be found is that which waxes and wanes around Elmer and his mother’s rapidly diminishing dreams from within their leaky-piped attic apartment, and its dismal nature serves only to heighten the magic of the fantastical world that later awaits. As if things aren’t hard enough for the Elevators when they arrive in Nevergreen, they also have crotchety landlady Mrs McLaren, voiced in one of the film’s many ear-catching star turns by the legendary Rita Moreno, keeping an eagle eye on them.
Before long, Dela’s desperately unsuccessful attempts to find work and her son’s heartbreaking realisation that sometimes our parents tell us reassuring lies to protect us from cruel truths lead Elmer to run away. In a kinetic sequence that evokes both the emotional intensity of the palace escape in The Tale of the Princess Kaguya as well as the perilous unknown captured in Snow White’s forest scene, highlighting Twomey’s knack for kinetic animated action, the necessarily grim reality of the film’s opening throes dissolve as Elmer flees Nevergreen City. Catapulted into a more recognisably Cartoon Saloonian world of fantasy by a Whoopi Goldberg-voiced talking cat and an adorable whale called Soda (Judy Greer), Elmer soon finds himself questing to the wild island of… err… Wild Island on a mission to rescue a mythic dragon, who perhaps might be the Elevators’ best shot at escaping penury.
Now, as conceded earlier, this is a narratively loose adaptation of Gannett’s novel, to the extent that the pre-Wild Island plot simply doesn’t exist in the original text, and in the book we don’t even meet the titular dragon until its closing pages. Here, with the prospect of a Hiccup/Toothless type double act impossible to resist and reams of space between Gannett’s lines to fill, no sooner has Elmer picked his fill of mouthwateringly drawn tangerines from the handily named archipelago Tangerina than he finds himself face-to-face with Gaten Matarazzo’s lovable dingbat Boris (A lovable Boris? In this economy? Perish the thought!).
Half-brontosaurus, half-Fimble, and striped in a clash of yellow and green that only a small child could conceive of, Boris is far from the almighty dragon Elmer is expecting. He’s scared of fire and large bodies of water, and while he’s quick to make noble declarations like “I would lay down my life for you”, he’s daunted by the quest he must undertake to save his island and become an all-powerful ‘after dragon’; he’d much rather just give hugs and make armpit farts. It’s clear from the get-go that both boy and beast will have a fair bit of growing up to do over the course of their adventure, and it’s interesting to note the way Elmer’s paternalistic sense of responsibility for Boris, despite his own uncertainty, mirrors his own mother’s struggles back home.
While in Gannett’s novel Boris is being used as a glorified taxi by Wild Island’s lazy natives, here things are complicated somewhat by the knowledge that the land’s well-meaning but unyielding gorilla ruler Saiwa (a commanding Ian McShane) keeps the dragon tied up in order to stop the island from sinking. With Saiwa and his tribe never more than a step behind, Elmer and Boris chart a course across the island to find another, better way to save it, encountering many weird and wonderful creatures as they traverse beautifully realised biomes from subaqueous realms reminiscent of Pandora to luscious pink forests populated by ferocious(ly cute), big-eyed monkeys. Although the striking monochromatism of Ruth Chrisman Gannett’s grease crayon illustrations make way for great bursts of colour in this cinematic adaptation, the geometric and storybook simplicity of the animation here pays loving tribute to the art of the author’s stepmother, creating something new that still feels traditional.
Where Twomey’s film most faithfully adheres to its source material, sadly to its detriment, is in its episodic form, which on more than one occasion stultifies the narrative as it attempts to build momentum. Whilst the island’s inhabitants are quirkily drawn and voiced with real chutzpah – Alan Cummings’ big-eyed croc Cornelius is a riot; Dianne Wiest’s rhinoceros momma Iris is a real heartstring tugger – the staccato effect of their encounters with our unlikely heroes can frustrate. Often, it is left to the soaring orchestral work of Jeff and Mychael Danna to tie these otherwise frequently disharmonious elements together and carry the story’s thematic and emotional throughlines.
Thankfully, the palpable chemistry between Matarazzo’s Boris and Tremblay’s Elmer and the naturalistic way LeFauve writes their relationship, gives the film its holding centre. You can tell in the palpable energy between the two A-list leads the difference that recording together in a studio – a rarity in modern animation – makes. Their back-and-forths hold a punchy playfulness through which you can almost hear the young actors trying not to corpse, Matarazzo’s Mentos-and-Coke fizzing overexuberance playing brilliantly against Tremblay’s far more mannered vocalisation. And in the film’s more emotional moments, as Boris and Elmer dare to throw off the shackles of anxiety holding them back, there’s an intimacy in the boys’ delivery that you simply can’t replicate over Zoom or recording hundreds of miles apart. By the time Boris and Elmer part ways, it feels like we have not only seen – but heard – genuine lifelong friendships being formed.
There was a fear heading into My Father’s Dragon that perhaps Cartoon Saloon’s first Netflix co-production would see the studio lose some of its idiosyncratic edge, that perhaps their trip across the pond would dilute the secret formula that makes their works so wondrous. But by the time Elmer’s daughter finishes the story of her father’s dragon, a fairytale for troubled times that encourages us to embrace that which scares us so that we may emerge stronger and less afraid of the future, it is abundantly clear that we needn’t have worried at all. And just to be crystal clear once again, animation is not just for children. It’s for all of us.
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