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OPINION | PLATFORM DIVING: In ‘My Father’s Dragon,’ cute simplicity shines through

by Courtney Lanning | November 11, 2022 at 1:32 a.m.
Stop dragon my heart around: Elmer (Jacob Tremblay) forms a bond with an immature and sensitive young basilisk named Boris (Gaten Matarazzo) in the Netflix film “My Father’s Dragon.”

Cartoon Saloon has been hard at work on their next feature since before the release of the 2020 Apple TV+ release "Wolfwalkers." This time, the Irish studio teamed up with Netflix for the release of its newest offering, "My Father's Dragon."

The film is based on a 1948 children's book of the same name by Ruth Stiles Gannett. This isn't the first animated adaptation. "My Father's Dragon" was also adapted into a Japanese animated (anime) movie in 1997.

"My Father's Dragon" opens with a narrator (Mary Kay Place) talking about her father, this resourceful little boy who can find anything and is always quick to solve a problem. The strange thing is we never see the narrator or meet her character. So it's kind of confusing as to why this story needed a narrator in the form of a character the audience is never introduced to.

Adding to the confusion, the main character is a little boy named Elmer (Jacob Tremblay). He appears to be around 10, so I'm left flabbergasted as to why his future daughter is narrating at the beginning and end of the story. Maybe there's a reason given in the book, but it's a weird choice for this adaptation.

Elmer and his mother, Dela (Golshifteh Farahani), run a general store in a small town. They're happy together, and all their customers are loyal and friendly. But eventually a recession hits, and they lose their store. Dela and Elmer move to an urban center called Nevergreen City and now live in a small attic apartment filled with leaky pipes and a strict landlord who doesn't seem to possess an ounce of sympathy at the start of the movie.

To keep Elmer busy, Dela points to an empty storefront across the street and tells him that can be their new store when they earn enough money. They start with a jar of coins, all that remained from their previous cash register.

This dream is all that keeps Elmer going and optimistic as his mother's money dwindles, and she finally dips into the coin jar trying to make phone calls responding to job listings in the newspaper. I was legitimately stressed for these characters and the tough financial situation they go through, and I think they're the start of the charming simplicity "My Father's Dragon" offers.

Money problems are relatable. Plenty of people who watch this movie will have had similar struggles at one point or another in their lives. Hell, they may actively face such struggles.

When the pressure gets to be too much, Dela does what any parent has done and snaps. She yells at Elmer, immediately regrets it, and he runs away into the rainy city, down stairs, through alleys, and eventually arriving at the port, finally stopping at a dock.

This is where the movie's magic picks up in the style of Neil Gaiman. Or maybe Gaiman picks up in the style of Gannett since the original book came out in the 1940s. But what I mean by this is the magical elements of the story don't always need to make sense.

Elmer is followed by a cat (Whoopi Goldberg) he befriended shortly before the fight with his mother. And he's rightfully surprised when the cat starts talking to him.

The unnamed feline tells Elmer of a place called Wild Island, where a dragon needs to be rescued. And if he saves the dragon and brings it back to Nevergreen City, he can charge people to see the dragon, using the money for a new store with his mother. Looking back, maybe there's a bit too much P.T. Barnum in this plan for me to be comfortable with. But I do appreciate Elmer keeping a consistent goal throughout "My Father's Dragon." Save money. Open the store. He just wants things to go back to the way they used to be, and again, this is a wildly relatable theme.

Continuing along with the story's simple, yet whimsical magic, the talking cat arranges for Elmer to ride to Wild Island on an adorable and silly talking whale named Soda (Judy Greer). She is one of the best parts of the movie, like the role of Dory from "Finding Nemo."

Elmer arrives at Wild Island (Soda kinda just dumps him into the sea without warning), and witnesses it sinking into the ocean. Three roots are attached to the bottom of the tiny landmass. But that's when a bright light appears, tied to some vines, and flies into the air, pulling the island back up for a time. That light is none other than a young dragon named Boris (Gaten Matarazzo).

In a Sisyphean cycle, Boris lifts the island, only for it to eventually start sinking again. So he had to continually do this while the animals that live on the island panic. They're led by a Gorilla named Saiwa (Ian McShane), who acts as the movie's antagonist. He has imprisoned Boris and forces him to keep raising the island.

Things get chaotic when Elmer saves Boris, and the two fall from a cliff down into the middle of the island, which is now sinking again. Boris is not the fire-breathing dragon Elmer was promised. He is, in fact, just a kid like our main protagonist, giggling and immature.

Boris dreams of becoming something called an "After Dragon," where he'll get muscles and fire. But to do that, he has to find a way to save Wild Island for good. Now stuck together since one of Boris' wings broke in the fall, the duo set out to find a solution to their problems, bond, and help each other along the way. And they also have to avoid Saiwa and his monkeys.

As usual, Cartoon Saloon's art is beautiful. I love that they stick to traditional 2D animation while bigger studios like Disney and DreamWorks are now entirely reliant on 3DCG. What really works for "My Father's Dragon" is how the studio relies on strong, simple shapes for all the animals. They're delightful and look like they were pulled right out of a children's book. On top of that, the backgrounds are colorful, unique, and always match the mood, from the dreary Nevergreen City to the lush Wild Island. Artistically, the film is another gem in the studio's crown.

With that said, it's hard for me to watch this film and not compare it to "Wolfwalkers," which quickly became one of my favorite movies of all time. I feel like Cartoon Saloon set the bar so high with that entry (it has a 99% on Rotten Tomatoes for Pete's sake), it'll be hard to top it. And maybe it's not fair to compare that movie to "My Father's Dragon." This latest entry is obviously aimed at a younger audience and tells an uncomplicated tale.

"My Father's Dragon" is still a wonderful piece of art, but I do feel like the movie's craft ends up being its strongest feature. And this isn't necessarily a bad thing. It's just different.

The movie is available today on Netflix.

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