Disney and Pixar are undoubtedly the most popular names in the field of animation. But popularity doesn’t always equate to consistency in terms of quality. Cartoon Saloon, which isn’t as popular a studio as the aforementioned production houses, has been dropping one masterpiece after another. Back in 2009, Tomm Moore and Nora Twomey released “The Secret of Kells,” which told the story of a young boy who takes up a bunch of daring, magical tasks in the face of a Viking invasion. In 2014, Moore came out with “Song of the Sea,” where a boy learns that his mute sister is a shapeshifter and is burdened with freeing creatures from a Celtic goddess. Twomey made “The Breadwinner” in 2017, which followed a young girl as she learned to provide for her family after her father was jailed. Moore, along with co-director Ross Stewart, delivered “Wolfwalkers” in 2020, which focused on the friendship between a hunter and a girl with the ability to turn into a wolf. And now, Twomey is back in the director’s chair with “My Father’s Dragon.”
Based on the 1948 children’s novel by Ruth Stiles Gannett, Twomey and writer Meg LeFauve tell the story of Elmer (Jacob Tremblay), who runs a shop with his mother, Dela (Golshifteh Farahani). But due to the apparent degradation of their town, they are forced to move to the city known as Nevergreen and find a home in an apartment rented by Mrs. McClaren (Rita Moreno). Given how much Elmer loved working at his mother’s shop, he assumes that Dela is going to open yet another shop right in front of their apartment with the pennies and random items he has collected. However, reality comes hurtling at them as Dela spends all of Elmer’s money to make calls to companies for a job. This understandably angers Elmer, and he bolts out of the apartment, and he keeps running until he reaches the very edge of the city. That’s where the cat (Whoopi Goldberg), who has been tailing him all along, reveals that she can not only talk but also has a business proposition. It involves bringing a literal dragon (known as Boris, who is voiced by Gaten Matarazzo) from an island, essentially using it as a spectacle to earn money, and bidding all of Elmer and Dela’s problems goodbye.
“My Father’s Dragon” is a visual masterpiece. Nora Twomey’s direction, the editing by Richie Cody, and the work by the concept artists, storyboard supervisors, location designers, layout artists, compositors, FX animators, clean-up artists, animators, ink and paint supervisors, rigging artists, and more, are exceptional. You can (and you should) pause on every single frame and marvel at the handiwork on display. I’ll advise watching the movie in its entirety once and then going frame-by-frame a second time so that you can enjoy it as a solid film first and then sit down and appreciate it much more thoroughly. And Twomey and her team’s work truly deserves multiple viewings because of the attention to detail in each frame. There’s a scene where Boris and Elmer walk through a forest where the trees have striped trunks. Initially, you probably won’t even notice the tigers using their stripe-patterned bodies to camouflage themselves because Twomey doesn’t call too much attention to it. That’s how understated the animation is. The character designs for the humans and the animals are so simple. But just with the tiniest change in facial expressions and body language, they manage to convey a sea of emotions. Everything about it is so vibrant, magical, and calming (in large part due to Jeff and Mychael Danna’s music and the pitch-perfect sound design) that you’ll want your dreams and reality to look like it.
The story of “My Father’s Dragon” is simple enough to seem relatable and multi-faceted enough to serve as jumping-off points for various kinds of relevant commentaries. On the surface, LeFauve shows Elmer dealing with the anxiety of moving into a place that’s not yet home for him. Unlike his town, the city folk isn’t really looking out for him. And when that lack of attention is combined with the pressure of his mother’s joblessness, it becomes overwhelming for Elmer. So, he goes into an escapist fantasy, which doubles as a lesson on facing one’s fears. You can even analyze this escapist fantasy as a metaphorical event that only happens in Elmer’s head and see the animals as personifications of the various issues haunting him. Boris, of course, represents Elmer’s restrained courage, Saiwa (Ian McShane) represents his trepidations, and so on and so forth. Since Cartoon Saloon’s films have always had an environmentalist approach, the dull gray city and the sinking island can be seen as a commentary on how humanity has ostracized various species of animals. The result is that humans are choking themselves to death with their fumes and gasses while forcing animals to go extinct as they deal with starvation and drowning in the sea.
In addition to all this awesomeness, there’s the voice cast. It features a bunch of amazing actors like Golshifteh Farahani, Ian McShane and Whoopi Goldberg to name a few who have acted the hell out of their scenes. It’s fascinating to watch McShane, O’Dowd, and Haley bicker with each other as different kinds of primates. Greer, Goldberg, and Wiest are incredibly adorable as cats, whales, and rhinos, respectively. But, at the end of the day, “My Father’s Dragon” belongs to Jacob Tremblay and Gaten Matarazzo. Both of these young talents are literally incapable of giving a bad performance in a movie. I don’t have any intention of seeing them perform badly. However, it’s mind-blowing to see them convey such complex and mature emotions so early on in their careers, all while maintaining an age-appropriate sense of fun and whimsy. Their chemistry is so infectious that you can basically see your entire childhood with your friends flashing before your eyes as you watch them play around, overcome various hurdles, and eventually realize that they need to grow up on their own.
“My Father’s Dragon” is hands down one of the best movies of the year. I am really glad that it has been viewed theatrically in Ireland, the United States, and the United Kingdom. At the same time, I think it would’ve been great if the film got a worldwide theatrical release. Then people would have experienced its magic on the biggest screen with the best sound. But, coming back to the topic of Cartoon Saloon’s popularity, there’s a very big chance that the film would’ve flopped at the box office just like its predecessors. Because unless it’s a Disney-Pixar film or a Minions project, people do not show up for theatrically released animated features. That is the bitter truth, and we’ve got to deal with it. Can “My Father’s Dragon” get the required attention on Netflix, though? I don’t know because the streaming platform has quite the reputation for burying its animated properties, even if they are as good as “Apollo 10 ½” “The Sea Beast,” “Wendell & Wild,” and “Oni: The Thunder God’s Tale.” So, it’s completely up to us to seek this movie out, watch it, appreciate it, and then preach about it because Twomey and her team’s masterpiece deserves that kind of love.