My Father’s Dragon Review: Even Cartoon Saloon’s Misfires Are Magical

My Father’s Dragon Review: Even Cartoon Saloon’s Misfires Are Magical

“My Father’s Dragon” may lack the enchanted splendor of “Wolfwalkers” or “The Secret of Kells,” but it still towers above most animated fare.

Cartoon Saloon is very good at this. The Kilkenny-based studio behind “The Secret of Kells” and “Song of the Sea” has emerged as a powerhouse in recent years. Its evocatively rendered 2D films drawing on ancient Celtic imagery — and the traditional storytelling charm that comes with it — sets its work apart from so much of the craven slop that passes for family entertainment in the age of “Lightyear” and “The League of Super-Pets.” If cinema is a crumbling church, the films of Cartoon Saloon are its lovingly crafted stained glass windows.

That much was already made evident by 2020’s astonishing “Wolfwalkers” (my review of which, I was amused to discover, begins with virtually the same first paragraphs as this one), but “My Father’s Dragon” might do even more to cement Cartoon Saloon’s role as a necessary counterbalance to the rest of your children’s movie diet. That isn’t because Nora Twomey’s lush — if extremely loose —adaptation of Ruth Stiles Gannett’s 1948 novel represents another creative step forward for Ireland’s finest animation studio, but rather because it doesn’t.

This winsome riff on a kids’ lit classic is the most generic movie that Cartoon Saloon has made so far, from its standard-issue story about a boy (voiced by Jacob Tremblay, natch) who runs away from home, to its hyper-cute ensemble of talking animals, and even to the cheesy song that plays over the end credits. And while there’s an enduring timelessness to many of these Gannett-inspired tropes, it’s hard not to miss the cultural specificity that’s been so inextricable from Cartoon Saloon’s previous work, mostly through the mystical Irishness of Tomm Moore’s folklore trilogy but also in the political history that backgrounded Twomey’s adaptation of “The Breadwinner,” about an 11-year-old girl in Taliban-controlled Kabul.

By contrast, “My Father’s Dragon” is a broader tale aimed at a younger audience. Instead of being set in a particular time and place, the action begins in a vague, mid-century sketch of the American Midwest, where its upbeat and resourceful young hero works the register at his single mother’s grocery store. When a recession forces Dela (Goldshifteh Farahani) to close up shop, she and Elmer decamp to a dour metropolis called Nevergreen City, the kind of blue and rainy place where Fritz Lang might have set his bedtime stories. Starting over scares Dela more than a parent ever wants their children to understand, and her burden of fear soon boils over into a fight that sends Elmer fleeing into the streets… where a talking cat (Whoopi Goldberg) points him towards Wild Island with promises of meeting a dragon who might solve all his problems. How so? It doesn’t matter. If an excitable talking whale shaped like a bath toy and voiced by Judy Greer ever offered you a ride across the sea, you probably wouldn’t haggle over the details either.

If the movie’s storybook visual style instantly reveals Cartoon Saloon’s signature — the digital watercolor of the studio’s two-and-a-half-D animation now iconic in its own right, even as Twomey uses it to honor the novel’s original illustrations — its “once upon a time” milieu and broad strokes plotting seem counter to everything that made “Wolfwalkers” special. That feeling only intensifies once Elmer reaches Wild Island and befriends the adorable young dragon keeping it afloat as part of some dragon rite of passage.

A puppy-like beast voiced by a playful Gaten Matarazzo, Boris is about as horrifying as a hand puppet and wears the red horn atop his head like a party hat he can never take off. And while it’s unclear how he might be able to help Elmer, there’s no mystery as to how Elmer might be able to help him in return: Boris has been tied up and forced into service by Saiwa the gorilla (Ian McShane), who runs Wild Island and will do anything to keep the animals who live there from sinking into the sea. That collective fear is as close as this highly episodic movie comes to a plot, as Elmer’s decision to free Boris terrifies every living creature on Wild Island while inflaming the power struggle between Saiwa and his only rival, a macaque voiced by Chris O’Dowd.

If the instant chemistry between Elmer and Boris is combustible enough to win back some of the young viewers whose attention may have wandered during the 30 minutes they spent waiting for them to meet, that energy also has to power the movie through the patchy series of close scrapes and animal encounters that push its heroes towards whatever maturation awaits them. The scattershot journey offers little sense of momentum between one scene and the next, with Jeff and Mychael Danna’s enchanting string and whistle score left to pave over logic gaps big enough to swallow older audiences whole.

If this weren’t a Cartoon Saloon movie, it would probably fall apart long before Meg LeFauve’s screenplay arrives at its touching finale, which trusts kids to confront some of the more difficult truths that childhood forces you to intuit. But good news: “My Father’s Dragon” is a Cartoon Saloon movie, and the open-hearted sincerity of the studio’s work breathes singular life into even the least engaging scenes of its most anonymous feature (how telling that its cheesy closing credits song is performed by the inimitable Anohni, whose indescribably beautiful voice could never be confused for anyone else’s).

The geometric richness of the film’s design works in tandem with its unusually idiosyncratic voice performances to create memorable characters out of thin air, such as the aggro crocodile whose head is so long that it can only be seen in profile; he carries his adorable baby crocs in his teeth, which means that Alan Cumming is forced to snarl most of his lines with his mouth full of spittle. It’s a far cry from the one-liners and sarcasm that have overrun movies like this. Talking animals are a dime a dozen, but it’s hard not to be tickled by the sight of round-headed tigers that look like parade balloons, or amused by the manic squeak that Jackie Earle Haley brings to Tamir the Tarsier, or delighted by the sound of Dianne Wiest(!) voicing a mama rhino who just wants to keep her safe, and trusts Saiwa because he doesn’t seem to betray any of the same fear that keeps her up at night.

But Elmer and Boris are the real standouts, rushing into a friendship with the singular fearlessness of two kids struggling to figure things out on their own. “I would lay down my life for you!” Boris proclaims about five seconds after they meet. “I would dry up oceans with fire and destroy mountains with my roar for you!” Never mind that he can’t actually do any of those things — he’s just ecstatic at the chance to flip the script and make Elmer feel like there’s nothing to be afraid of. But “My Father’s Dragon” is eventually able to cobble together a real emotional undertow because it never entirely loses sight of the idea that it’s okay to be scared; that growing up isn’t about denying your fears so much as it’s about finding the strength to share them. And that’s precisely what Elmer did when he shared this story with the daughter who tells it to us here.

Grade: B

“My Father’s Dragon” will open in select theaters on Friday, November 4. It will be available to stream on Netflix starting Friday, November 11.

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