Muriel Stiles My Father's Dragon, a 1948 fantasy book for kids by Gannett that won the Newbery Honor, receives the Cartoon Saloon treatment in Nora Twomey's painstakingly crafted feature adaptation. The 10-year-old boy named Elmer and Boris, the dragon with whom he learns the benefits of friendship and bravery, respectively, are brought to life by a stellar voice cast led by Jacob Tremblay and Gaten Matarazzo, and the movie draws its artistic inspiration directly from the illustrations created by the author's stepmother, Ruth Chrisman Gannett. Although it lacks the cultural specificity of the Irish animation boutique's best work, such as Wolfwalkers and Song of the Sea, its vintage 2D beauty and engaging storytelling should appeal to young viewers.
This is the second feature film based on Gannett's well-liked book after Masami Hata's 1997 Japanese adaptation, and it had its world premiere at the London Film Festival before making its Netflix debut on November 11. Following 2017's The Breadwinner, a film about an 11-year-old Afghan girl coming of age under Taliban rule, director Twomey makes a transition into more traditional children's adventure territory with this film. However, there is a thematic overlap in the emphasis on preteen protagonists seeking to take responsibility for their families' problems while seeking escape from life's hardships and danger in fantastic stories.
The Elmer and the Dragon trilogy by Gannett is "inspired by" the screenplay by Meg LeFauve (Inside Out), rather than being an exact translation. However, it adheres to the original model in that the story is told by an unseen narrator (Mary Kay Place) who is remembering events from her father's life decades earlier.
Elmer helps his mother Dela (Golshifteh Farahani) in her busy small-town grocery store at the beginning of the story. Thanks to his aptitude for finding things, he is crucial to quickly filling customers' orders. But when a recession strikes, those prosperous times turn out to be fleeting, and they lose the store to foreclosure.
Elmer packs the few items still on the shelves in his backpack as stock for when they open a new store as his mother tries to reassure him that everything will be okay as they set out for a fresh start in the city. These items include a pair of scissors, a strawberry lollipop, a piece of chewing gum, and a box of elastic bands. Those haphazard items in his inventory will come in handy when he soon embarks on a perilous journey in a foreign, uncharted location where no child has ever been before.
As a mother and son travel through torrential downpour on lonely roads to a gloomy location called Nevergreen City, Twomey and her animators add poetic notes of melancholy. With the help of the soulful strings in their score, Jeff and Mychael Danna's siblings' relocation evokes stories from the Great Depression. They live in a walk-up attic apartment with poor plumbing that they rent from a grumpy landlady, Mrs. McClaren (Rita Moreno), while Dela repeatedly calls about positions that are already filled. Elmer recognises the false optimism behind her assurance of a new store, even as she reminds him that it is her responsibility to worry and not his.
Elmer gets into a fight after an alley cat follows him home, and in one of the movie's most visually arresting scenes, he flees through the crowded city with its ominous shadows, clouds of industrial smoke, and walls that seem to be closing in on him until he reaches the docks. He is then shocked when the cat reveals that she can speak (voiced by Whoopi Goldberg).
As payment for Elmer's kindness, the cat arranges for him to travel on the back of a giggling whale named Soda and tells him about a "amazing, spectacular, real live, flying, fire-breathing dragon" on a location called Wild Island (Judy Greer). In order to relieve his mother's burden and pay for the new store, Elmer believes he can make the dragon into a lucrative tourist attraction.
A plot device that gives Elmer instability in his adventure to match that of his reality in Nevergreen is the fact that the majority of the story takes place on Wild Island, which is sunking into the ocean. Only the efforts of the dragon, Boris, who is kept in captivity by the silverback gorilla Saiwa (Ian McShane), the head of the island's animal population, can keep the island above sea level.
Elmer and Boris quickly become friends after Elmer uses his scissors to cut the vines tying him to the crater at the centre of the island. However, Boris does not quite live up to the cat's description of him as a "amazing, spectacular, real live, flying, fire-breathing dragon." He's young, like Elmer, and his damaged wing makes the awkward goofball's elevation to full "after-dragon" powers even more difficult than his self-doubt. It also doesn't help that he fears fire and deep water.
My Father's Dragon will seem less unique to adult viewers than Cartoon Saloon's earlier works, which stood out for their folkloric, mythic, and ethnographic underpinnings. However, children should be receptive to Elmer and Boris' odyssey as they traverse the island and confront their anxieties in search of solutions to assist the dragon in finding his fire and halt the sinking of the animals' home.
Both the cute character designs and the easygoing rapport that Tremblay and Matarazzo establish in their dialogue contribute to the appeal. Boris looks like a stuffed green and yellow striped sock with red spikes running down the back of his long neck, while Elmer has a hint of the saucer-eyed anime boy about him. The symbiotic relationship between insecure Boris learning to trust his gut instincts and clever, resourceful, and decisive Elmer admitting that he doesn't always have it all figured out strengthens their heartfelt friendship. The Danna Brothers' pretty whistle theme gives the exchange extra tenderness, making it less like a traditional hero's journey and more like an opportunity for mutual growth.
With echoes of imagery from Miyazaki to Maurice Sendak, the numerous animals they encounter share the strong voice work and endearing character concepts. Dianne Wiest's caring rhinoceros Iris, Alan Cumming's haughty crocodile Cornelius, Leighton Meester and Spence Moore II's boisterous tigers Sasha and George, Jackie Earle Haley's alarmist tarsier Tamir, and Chris O'Dowd's resentful macaque Kwan are among the wild animals.
The rewritten screenplay retains some of the episodic structure of the novel but sometimes falters in its transitions and lacks clarity in its plots. However, the intense affection for the source material is evident, and the charming painterly hand-drawn aesthetic. Beautiful monochromatic tones contrast with the vibrant colours of Wild Island in a dream sequence that links Elmer back to his house and mother.