My Father’s Dragon (Review) – Cartoon Saloon’s Most Child-Friendly Offering Yet

DIRECTOR: Nora Twomey

CAST: Jacob Tremblay, Gaten Matarazzo, Whoopi Goldberg, Ian McShane, Golshifteh Farahani, Dianne Wiest, Rita Moreno, Chris O’Dowd, Judy Greer, Alan Cumming, Yara Shahidi, Jackie Earle Haley, Mary Kay Place, Leighton Meester, Spence Moore II, Adam Brody, Charlyne Yi, Maggie Lincoln, Jack Smith

RUNNING TIME: 99 mins

CERTIFICATE: PG

BASICALLY…: A young boy (Tremblay) teams with a dragon (Matarazzo) for an adventure on a fantastical island…

NOW FOR THE REVIEW…

With five solid features already under their belt, Ireland-based Cartoon Saloon is quickly becoming an animation studio to be reckoned with, having been praised for not just their dazzling 2D visuals but also their emotionally challenging stories with complex and three-dimensional characters, ones that are suitable for both children and adults alike. As with most major animation studios, though, every now and then there’ll be something that’s strictly just for the little ones, which is where My Father’s Dragon comes in. At first it’s a bit odd to see something so simple and child-oriented come from a studio known for much more invigorating and resonant material, but it still manages to be a visually gorgeous and endlessly sweet film that’s perfect to plop the sprogs in front of.

Based on the children’s book by Ruth Stiles Gannett, and adapted for Netflix by Disney veteran Meg LaFauve under the direction of Nora Twomey (who previously made The Breadwinner for the studio), the film begins as a narrator (voiced by Mary Kay Place) tells the story of her father when he was a young boy named Elmer (Jacob Tremblay), who moves to the dreary city of Nevergreen with his mother Dela (Golshifteh Farahani) after economic turmoil forces their store to close down. Determined to raise money so that they can open a new store, Elmer gets advice from a talking cat voiced by Whoopi Goldberg – as you do – that somewhere on a distant mythical isle called Wild Island, there is a dragon who can solve his problems. However, upon arrival, he finds that the dragon, named Boris (Gaten Matarazzo), isn’t much of a dragon at all: his wings are tiny, he has a very silly attitude, and he doesn’t even like being around fire or water. Nonetheless, both boy and dragon are thrust on an adventure together across the island to stop the place from sinking into the water, and to get away from its ruler, a gorilla named Saiwa (Ian McShane), who wants to use Boris for misguided purposes.

While the story certainly lacks the cultural and spiritual context of previous Cartoon Saloon vehicles like Song of the Sea and Wolfwalkers – this one is mostly an American-set piece, far away from the rural and mythical Irish settings of those films – it is still charming in its ability to connect with younger viewers through its simplicity. The film is paced and composed as though it were a storybook come to life, with brightly coloured hand-drawn designs looking like they just leapt off the pages and right into the imagination of its young readers. The dialogue and characters are equally geared to appeal towards kids more than adults, which for the latter can sometimes feel like you’re watching something on Nick Jr. rather than a multi-Oscar nominated studio, but neither you nor your child’s intelligence ever feels at danger of being diminished or looked down upon (save for a singular fart joke that feels out of place), thanks to LaFauve’s simplistic writing that gets straight to the point without dillydallying. It’s neat, straightforward storytelling which rarely exists in most movies nowadays, let alone ones made for children, and though you may miss the deeper and more resonant themes from past Cartoon Saloon films, it’s nice to see this old-fashioned style of writing still exist in some form.

As with pretty much every offering from the cartoon studio, the animation is just gorgeous to look at. Bright and colourful for its younger audience, while still being stylistic and intricate enough for the older crowd, there is plenty for most viewers to fall in love with visually, and really cements Cartoon Saloon’s status as one of the few remaining 2D companies that’s still finding artistic merit in the hand-drawn medium. Going back to the notion that the movie feels like a storybook come to life, that extends to the backgrounds, character designs, colour palettes, and just about everything that your eye can spot, all of which you could legitimately see being an illustration on the page that has magically been granted the gift of movement. It is an illusion that CGI animation, no matter how much it has progressed over the years, simply cannot replicate, making My Father’s Dragon a gentle throwback to the kinds of animated family films that managed to tell it story on the screen while also feeling like it was lifted straight from the page.

The film may not be a highpoint for the studio, nor is it even their most sophisticated work either from a narrative or visual standpoint, but it’s a sweet and simple film that very young children can easily enjoy as a potential introduction to the wonderful world of animation.

SO, TO SUM UP…

My Father’s Dragon is a sweet and simple animated adventure for young children, which is odd to see from a studio like Cartoon Saloon that has put out much more complex and all-encompassing films in the past, but there are many straightforward pleasures and beautiful visuals to enchant most other viewers.

My Father’s Dragon is now available to stream on Netflix.

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