Gorgeous Animated Movie Runs On Empathy

Jan 19, 2023

Appreciators of the art of animation should be familiar with Cartoon Saloon, and anyone who isn’t has a very enjoyable viewing journey ahead of them. The Ireland-based studio committed to hand-drawn, 2D animation had four feature films to their name before their latest release, My Father’s Dragon, most notably a trio inspired by Irish folklore. This new movie hitting Netflix, an adaptation of the 1948 book of the same name directed by Nora Twomey, is perhaps their most easily accessible to date, and the most directly targeted at younger audiences. It is also a statement that their brand is worthy of the trust viewers afford to the biggest names in all-ages entertainment at their best. If Song of the Sea is more emotionally complex and Wolfwalkers more visually ornate, My Father’s Dragon operates with a clarity of purpose that is so well-calibrated it risks being taken for granted. Beautiful, moving, and sporting a compelling metaphor for parenthood, Twomey’s film is heartfelt in the way that Pixar and Ghibli films are, making it a worthy pick for a family movie night.

The film begins with Elmer (Jacob Tremblay) and his mother, Dela (Golshifteh Farahani), being forced by an ecomonic depression to close their idyllic, small-town general store and move to the big city to start again. Eager to take the stress of precarity and upheaval off her son, Dela gives Elmer the impression things will soon be as they were — they just need to save up for a bit, and they’ll be able to buy a new store in no time. He believes her and tries to do his part, but being young doesn’t make him a fool, and he soon notices the difficult reality of their situation. Frustrated that his mother seems willing to give up on their dream, he presses her for the truth. Overwhelmed, she blows up and admits she lied, for his benefit but also for hers. Elmer runs away, determined to raise the money they need on his own. This section of the movie takes up more space than the customary prologue, and indeed does more than set the table for what follows. It anchors the viewer in reality before they are thrown into fantasy.

Related: Wendell & Wild Review: Ambitious Stop-Motion Movie Is Creepy Family Fun

The characters and their relationships are captured in a gentle, truthful, and poignant way, and the emotional stakes of this framing device add welcome weight to the adventure that follows. It also provides the key to interpreting the main plot of My Father’s Dragon. Touched by Elmer’s kindness, a street cat he takes under his wing not only reveals she can talk (with the voice of Whoopi Goldberg), but that she has a solution to his problem. On the distant Wild Island, named for the host of dangerous animals that call it home, a dragon is being held captive and forced to keep it from sinking into the sea.

Elmer need only rescue him and bring him home, where people would surely pay a pretty penny to see a real, fire-breathing creature of legend. But the dragon he ultimately meets is not what he imagined. Boris (Gaten Matarazzo), Elmer’s age in equivalent dragon years, is childlike, fearful, and decidedly not fire-breathing. He is on his rite-of-passage trip to save Wild Island, which starts to sink every 100 years, and when he succeeds, he explains, he’ll emerge as an all-powerful After Dragon and gain his fire. The only problem is that Boris has no idea how to save the island, and as they traverse the jungle in search of an answer pursued by the formidable gorilla in charge, Saiwa (Ian McShane), Elmer has to take the lead.

Boris and Elmer in My Father’s Dragon

My Father’s Dragon makes no effort to hide its lesson, as Elmer’s relationship with Boris quickly parallels his mother’s with him, but this clarity should not be mistaken for simplicity. The film is genuinely interested in the question of how one should approach their responsibility for others when living through difficult times, and it offers no easy answer. Elmer learns to trust his dragon friend in the way he wanted Dela to trust him, but in his pseudo-roleplay, he also comes to understand his mother’s instinct to shield him from difficult truths. Saiwa is also crucial in this exploration. Despite occupying the role of antagonist, Twomey gives plenty of space to his point of view, and even though he does wrong by imprisoning and exploiting Boris, My Father’s Dragon never lets the viewer condemn him for it. A lesser children’s movie might’ve positioned him as a villain — along with Elmer and Dela’s crotchety landlady, Mrs. McClaren (Rita Moreno) — but this one isn’t interested in labeling its characters as bad. The thematic journey is empathetic rather than moralistic, and the greatest takeaway is the value of forgiving mistakes when they are made with good intentions.

The benefit of asking the audience to feel their way through the movie’s ideas is that accessing them requires no intellectual distance. Getting wrapped up in the narrative and its characters, as kids especially are wont to do, is the point, and My Father’s Dragon gives them plenty to grasp onto. The story itself is engaging, a well-balanced mixture of drama and humor that toes the line between foreshadowing and surprise. The characters are compellingly animated in a style that reflects the movie’s children’s book origins, and the visual approach gives each of them a strong sense of personality, which the voice cast successfully brings to life across the board. The impact of performances from Goldberg, Judy Greer (as the giggly whale Soda), and Dianne Wiest (as concerned mother rhino Iris) despite relatively little screen time is a testament to the production’s determination to waste no moment or detail. That dedication to craft is something to be celebrated, and a reason families starved for it in their entertainment should always keep an eye on Cartoon Saloon’s release calendar.

Next: Enola Holmes 2 Review: Brown & Cavill Sequel Is Charming, Low-Stakes Fun

My Father’s Dragon released in limited theaters November 4 and is available on Netflix November 11. The film is 99 minutes long and is rated PG for some peril.

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