The studio behind Wolfwalkers returns with another gentle, beautifully-animated gem
I’ve been re-watching classic Disney animated features, and all of the early films begin with the opening of a storybook, as if what you are about to see is a fairy tale come to life. “Storybook fantasy” is not how I’d describe most of the animated films Disney and its big studio competitors have put out in recent years, but scrappy Irish animation studio Cartoon Saloon has reminded us with films like The Secret of Kells, Wolfwalkers, and now the sweetly charming My Father’s Dragon that animated features can still impart the quiet wonder of a lovingly-illustrated children’s book.
The story follows a boy named Elmer (Jacob Tremblay, Room) who has just moved to the dreary city of Nevergreen with his mother (Golshifteh Farahani) after their rural drygoods store goes out of business. Elmer nurses dreams of starting a new store while his mother struggles to make ends meet. After the pair have a fight, Elmer runs from home to the fantastical Wild Island inhabited by exotic talking animals, where he plans to steal a dragon so he can make money by selling tickets. Before he can do that, though, he has to rescue the dragon from the island’s primate leader Saiwa (Ian McShane), who is using the dragon to keep Wild Island from sinking into the sea. Far from the majestic creature Elmer imagined, the stubby-legged, green-and-yellow-striped dragon named Boris (Stranger Things’ Gaten Matarazzo) turns out to be cowardly and dimwitted. Boris and Elmer embark on a journey to find the giant turtle Aratuah, who can tell Boris how to transform into a powerful “afterdragon” and permanently save Wild Island.
The animation is as gorgeous as you’d expect from the studio behind Wolfwalkers and The Secret of Kells. Soft pastel strokes and subtle paper-like textures give richness to the 2D-style animation, and the jewel-toned colors are vibrant without being garish. Often the background designs overtake the characters as Elmer and Boris travel through viny, emerald-green forests; groves of pink-leaved trees; or an island of tangerines amidst an aquamarine sea. Wild Island itself is designed as a sort of technicolor artichoke, and when the island lurches as it sinks, each petal moves in response.
The voice cast all do good work here, particularly Tremblay as Elmer. Matarazzo as Boris takes some warming up to, as the character is deliberately established as an annoying airhead, but that innocence ultimately heightens the emotional stakes of the film’s tear-jerking climax. Ian McShane as the morally burdened Saiwa continues Cartoon Saloon’s grand tradition of deep-voiced daddies, with supporting performances from Whoopi Goldberg, Judy Greer, Alan Cumming, Rita Moreno, Dianne Wiest, Adam Brody, and Chris O’Dowd.
The 2D, pastel-like visuals beautifully evoke illustrations in a children’s storybook, but the film similarly has an overly-simplistic and linear children’s book plot. The dynamics of Elmer’s relationship with his mother feel rushed, as does Elmer’s scheme to capture the dragon. Once he arrives on Wild Island things take on an episodic, follow-the-breadcrumbs mission structure where Elmer and Boris simply walk to a new location, interact with new characters, then move on. It’s established that Elmer is good at finding things, so it’s weird that the film has the pair simply follow signs pointing toward their destination. A more cause-and-effect-driven plot would have felt more engaging while easing the burden on the voice cast to carry the scenes with quirky dialogue.
It’s easy to recommend a film as gentle and soothing as My Father’s Dragon as a salve to the hyperactive, commercially-focused landscape of animated features. The film will also please animation fans hungry for visuals that deviate from the Disney or Dreamworks house style and embrace the painterly qualities only 2D-style animation can achieve. Cartoon Saloon has been a perennial underdog in the animation space, and every feature from them is worth cherishing.
This review was made possible by donations to the Fall Movie Fundraiser for Indigenous Abortion Access. Missed your chance to donate? You still can!