Since its first film release, The Secret of Kells, in 2009, animation studio Cartoon Saloon has made a name for itself by developing remarkable stories of adventure, catharsis, and healing through the lens of adolescence. Each of the four films they’ve crafted into reality — Kells, Song of the Sea (2017), The Breadwinner (2017), and Wolfwalkers (2020) — are not only beloved by audiences, but by the industry as a whole as each film earned an Academy Award nomination in the Best Animated Feature category. While nominations for awards (or the lack therefore) are not a clear barometer for quality, general consensus is that when Cartoon Saloon puts together a project, the wisest of us patiently wait for its arrival. Their newest project, helmed by Kells co-director and Breadwinner director Nora Twomey and written by Inside Out (2015) scribe Meg LeFauve, comes My Father’s Dragon, an adaptation of a 1948 children’s novel by Ruth Stiles Gannett. Bearing all the visual and thematic stylings of a Cartoon Saloon release, My Father’s Dragon is a tale of memory, perception, and truth and the ways in which each one impact the other to create our reality that will move even the most hardened viewers.
When times grow hard, Elmer (voiced by Jacob Tremblay) and his mother Dela (voiced by Golshifteh Farahani) leave their home for Nevergreen City, a place which lacks all the color and hope of home. The more time spent there, the more Elmer longs to make what is the same as what was, frustrated by the slowness and frequently contrariwise decisions Dela seems to make. Then, an opportunity arises to journey to Wild Island, a place rumored to have a dragon, a dragon which he could bring back to Nevergreen City and use to restore his life almost to what it was. But when he arrives on Wild Island, all is not what he thought as the dragon is tied up at the top of the island, the only thing keeping Wild Island from sinking into the ocean.
If you’re not already familiar with Cartoon Saloon, their films tend to explore a variety of concepts but always from the lowered perspective of a child. It’s not that adult characters aren’t represented or that they are distinctly incorrect in their views or motives, it’s just that the children are the way in and out of the tale for the audience. Such is the case here, and this is made plain from the moment the film begins when a narrator (voiced by Mary Kay Place) begins to tell us about her father as the camera lands on Elmer. So not only is our lead of the story a child, but the adventure itself is being told by that child’s child. More than any of their other films which dealt with fairytales, magic, and even transfiguration, the whole of Dragon is predicated upon a child’s memory of events that happened long ago, retold to us like a game of telephone. From this, all manner of wonders and fantastical things can occur, including rescuing a dragon named Boris (voiced by Gaten Matarazzo) from the scared inhabitants of Wild Island led by the wizened Salwa (voiced by Ian McShane). Moreso than latest release Wolfwalkers, which is a gorgeous and moving story all its own, Dragon pushes the fantasy elements further so that the only rule we can count on is that there are no real rules except what we imagine.
As an aside, the structure for the film is a lovely bit of layering as the adult child’s memory is the frame on which the whole film hangs, making what we see and hear a creation of what she remembers based on her own father’s storytelling, something which may very well have been an elaborate story all its own (as some parents are wont to do). Especially as the film, subtly at first and more pronounced as it goes further, explores the very nature of perception and how the choices people make (especially the ones we don’t understand) are shaped by what they know or, more accurately, think they know. As a population, we *knew* that Earth was a flat surface until we explored and discovered differently and we *knew* Earth was the center of the universe until we expanded our perspective. As children, we *know* all that is before us and yet nothing at all, unable to see the complex machinations at work around us. Much like in Inside Out, the script by LeFauve makes use of child-like imagination to make tangible that which Elmer knows and doesn’t know in order for him to come to understand why he ran away in search of a dragon in the first place. With this in mind, My Father’s Dragon is a potent family adventure reminiscent of an elongated animated version of Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are wherein our hero gets exactly what he wishes but finds the solution elsewhere. (To delve further would be to touch on spoilers and there are some tall tales one should experience first-hand.)
Where there’s an issue, if one were to call it that, is that Dragon lacks the subtle touch of Cartoon Saloon’s prior works. For instance, in Wolfwalkers, the production design of the film played a major part in conveying the conflict between the rigid, hard lines of the prim and proper residents of Kilkenny and the wavey, flowing design of the forest and its inhabitants. Even the colors shifted in presentation to communicate the battle between industrial improvements versus flourishing nature (itself a rumination on humankind’s constant attempt to control nature as if one can’t prosper without domination). The colors of Wild Island are vibrant and the design playful, certainly in line with both Gannett’s source material and Cartoon Saloon’s specific visual style. But they’re no more as vibrant as the store and its customers at the start of the story. This can be explained as being part of Elmer’s memory which he has bestowed upon his daughter, our narrator, but there’s little in the way of specificity that denotes that special Cartoon Saloon energy or thoughtfulness. Additionally, the narrative itself makes specific examples of each of Elmer’s internal struggles that the literal facing of them can leave one feeling beaten over the head instead of guided toward. This isn’t to imply that Dragon fails to pack a wallop in its conclusion; it does and this is largely due to the way Dragon keeps its secret tightly to itself, revealing an air of unpredictability that rescues itself from an odd generic formularized coming of age tale. The issue is that while individual characters are inspired in their design (Cornelius the Crocodile voiced by Alan Cumming looks snapped right out of a 2D book) and the fantasy elements do pull you in, the adults in the room get the point far sooner than the children might, a strange decision for a film studio whose tales tend not to be quite so obvious in their thematic execution.
If you’re a fan of prior Cartoon Saloon releases, there should be little worry as to whether My Father’s Dragon will deliver visually, creatively, thematically, or through the performances. Artistically, Dragon is what one has come to expect from this talented art house and the performances from the cavalcade of actors (Rita Moreno! Dianne Wiest! Judy Greer! Whoopi Goldberg!) in roles small and large fit within the larger Saloon stable. Dragon is a film that explores the fierce connection between love and memory and the ways in which we trick ourselves into thinking we know best whether driven by love or anger, fear or despair. Even amid the things which are all too familiar, all too presented obviously, the potency in the narrative and the beauty in the presentation will move you.
Screening during the BFI Film Festival 2022.
Screening during the Animation Is Film Festival 2022.
Available on Netflix November 11th, 2022.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.