Film Review – My Father’s Dragon
My Father’s Dragon
Cartoon Saloon, the studio responsible for the acclaimed animated features Song of the Sea (2014) and The Secret of Kells (2009) has returned with yet another marvel in My Father’s Dragon (2022). The film is reminiscent of the best Studio Ghibli efforts, in how it mixes fantasy and adventure with real life themes. We see the world through the eyes of a young person as they get transported to places full of wonder and mysticism. They come of age through the perils they face, emerging as wiser and better people. It’s not easy being a kid – the world can feel big, confusing, and scary at the same time. Here is a movie that tells them they are not alone in those feelings.
As much as this is about growing up, it is also about the pressures of being a parent. It’s tough raising a child. The balance between maintaining their innocence, being honest about the hardships of life, and believing that they will figure things out is difficult. Patience and trust are vital between a parent and their kids. That is the dilemma for Dela (Golshifteh Farahani) and her son Elmer (Jacob Tremblay). Dela once owned a thriving store, but financial difficulties have forced her and Elmer to move into a rundown apartment in the city of Nevergreen. Instead of being honest with her son, Dela gives him false hope about opening a new store. This creates a rift between them. Soon enough, Elmer runs away in hopes of helping their financial woes.
The writing (Meg LeFauve) and direction (Nora Twomey) waste little time hurling Elmer into his journey. Before he realizes what’s happening, he gets whisked away to a magical place called Wild Island. There, he meets an assortment of creatures – talking apes, crocodiles, tigers, etc. Important amongst these is a friendly dragon named Boris (Gaten Matarazzo). Unlike the common interpretations of dragons, Boris is afraid of water, has a broken wing, and is unable to breathe fire. Elmer – using his own sense of logic – believes Boris is the key to helping his family’s money troubles.
I’ve spent a little more effort detailing the plot because the narrative is stuffed with moving parts. Not only do we have the issues between Elmer and his mom, but also between Boris and the island itself. We learn that the island is slowly sinking, and that Boris may be the key to saving it. This makes him a primary concern for all wildlife, especially the monkeys. Led by the gorilla Saiwa (Ian McShane), the apes become adversaries for Elmer. Admittedly, this is a lot to take in. The narrative doesn’t bother to explain all the details, which is a good thing. It manages to keep everything organized so that we never get lost in the weeds. The writing and direction adapt Ruth Stiles Gannett’s book as a straightforward parable involving the complexities of family.
This is seen in just about every major relationship in the story. Just as Dela is a parent to Elmer, Saiwa is a parent to the other monkeys. In a way, his arc is a cautionary tale of parentage taken to an extreme. Saiwa’s questionable methods creates a wedge between he and Tamir (Jackie Earle Haley), who represents his wayward son. We also see this dynamic between Elmer and Boris. The tables turn as Elmer is put in the position as the guiding force. Boris’ naivete and fear causes Elmer to think on his feet. He adapts his approach (as the figurative “parent”) to help Boris overcome his anxieties. On a larger degree, Boris plays the parent role for the entire island itself. The island needs Boris to grow up and take responsibility to save it from destruction. All these connections happen simultaneously, and how each one resolves is indicative of how complicated it is to be both a parent and child.
On an aesthetic level, the 2D animation has a soft, flat, and elegant design. Nevergreen city is rendered with drab grays and blues. Background characters walk along rainy streets like anonymous beings. This is contrasted with the environments of Wild Island, where every location is unique. One area contains pink grass. In another, forests are filled with trees whose bark has eyes peering over Elmer and Boris. There is an organic quality to the entire island, as though it were a single living organism. Wide shots reveal gigantic roots dangling from beneath, making the place feel earthy and alien at the same time. The animation calls to mind children’s books. Simple but beautiful drawings come to life in the way kids imagine them when read bedtimes stories. This is further exemplified with a narrator (Mary Kay Place), who tells the story from the perspective of Elmer’s future daughter.
How we influence the next generation is the heart of My Father’s Dragon. This is a warm, lovely, and earnest movie. It has a crystal-clear message and enough edge to be more than a mere distraction. It accomplishes what every great family film does: bringing us into a world of imagination and leaving us with lessons we can carry for a lifetime.