Generic Journey Overtakes Complex Themes
Dec 25, 2022
It’s pretty easy to fall in love with movies from the Irish production company Cartoon Saloon. With a visual style that underscores the age of its protagonists but at the same time doesn’t ignore their very real and often tragic realities, the studio has produced some top-quality films like Wolfwalkers and Song of the Sea. Their titles take viewers by surprise as they present complex and layered depictions of children living through challenging events. For that reason, it comes as a shock that My Father’s Dragon is happy with just mimicking the studio’s previous works, while favoring artificial and fleeting emotions.
This animated movie’s potential to tell a layered story hits a high note right at the beginning. It’s impossible not to get won over by the story of Elmer (voiced by Jacob Tremblay), a boy who sees his mother struggle to raise him and do everything in her power—including having to endure constant humiliation—to guarantee she keeps food on the table and a roof over their heads. During its first few minutes, Meg LeFauve’s script does a stellar job of crafting a careful picture of a mother who wants to protect her son at all costs, all the while trying her hardest not to transfer the frustration of their difficult life to the kid.
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Sadly, all of that gets scrapped too soon, and ignoring more intriguing storylines is a constant problem in My Father’s Dragon. Along its relatively short runtime, the movie introduces several characters just to toss them away a few minutes later. The first is Elmer’s mother Dela (Golshifteh Farahani), who is forgotten the minute the boy goes on his adventure. Elmer also meets a group of street kids – who quickly disappear as well. Elmer then meets a cat that gets left behind, and finally, a friendly whale (who could be a huge help to the main story) who is also forgotten.
Image via Netflix
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These problems seem rooted in the necessity of putting characters from the famous Ruth Stiles Gannett novel on screen, but My Father’s Dragon fails to comprehend that in this media, you have to let go of elements that offer no contribution at all to the narrative. By keeping unnecessary characters, a completely disposable narration, and scrapping its emotional core – the mother-son relationship – My Father’s Dragon ends up becoming two distinct movies: One unfinished tale of perseverance and a generic save-the-world adventure.
While it carefully puts together a family drama in the beginning, My Father’s Dragon’s construction of an alternate world is uninspired at best. The premise is that animals from a magic island are on the brink of extinction, and a local legend might tell them how to survive a deadly flood. Unable to stress the urgency of saving the animals of a sinking island, director Nora Twomey often relies on exposition, having the characters constantly state that the island is “rapidly” sinking – except when it’s not. The movie also artificially raises the stakes through exposition, like when Boris the Dragon (Gaten Matarazzo) flat-out says “Remember when I said that water makes me dizzy?” only to have no payoff when the dragon falls into a river and…nothing happens.
Image via Netflix
My Father’s Dragon also knows that, like any adventure, developing a meaningful relationship between its two main characters is vital to its final act. However, on top of the duo’s journey being void of real bonding moments, the movie attempts to bring an (again) artificial conflict to its climax by making the weird choice of Elmer suddenly being a complete jerk to Boris for no reason at all (“You’ll never be an After Dragon”). And all of that only happens so that they can have a reconciliation a few moments later.
After all this mess, My Father’s Dragon adds insult to injury by making it clear that, unlike other portal adventures like Spirited Away and Spiderwick Chronicles, saving a parallel world has no impact whatsoever on the story’s original conflicts. Suddenly and magically, all real-world issues get resolved on their own – a cheap ending that directly contradicts other productions that hailed from the same studio. When Elmer gets questioned about how he’ll help his mother get through their undisputable dire situation, all he has to offer is a simple “I’ll figure it out,” which underscores how empty of meaning his otherworldly adventure was, and that he’s learned nothing at all.
My Father’s Dragon abandons a truly heartfelt storyline with complex layers in favor of a generic adventure with vague threats, vague solutions, and predictable outcomes. On top of that, it doesn’t know how to use its narration, features a good number of characters that are either abandoned or never used, and sends its main character on a journey which ultimately suggests that escapism may help you ignore your problems until they magically disappear.
My Father’s Dragon is now streaming on Netflix.
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