This review was published in connection with the film’s premiere at the 2022 BFI London Film Festival. My father’s dragon will debut on Netflix in November.
My father’s dragon is one of those classic children’s books that seems to come straight from the subconscious. For kids it probably feels comforting and filled with wonder, but when you get to it as an adult – as I recently read to my 5-year-old after a friend gave us a copy – it just feels overwhelmingly odd. (Actually, my kid thought it was funny, too.) Written in 1948 by Ruth Stiles Gannett, it tells the story of a young boy who, after a disagreement with his mother, flees to Wild Island, where he must outwit some tragi-comic talking animals to save the candy-striped boy to save the dragon they enslaved.
The new Netflix animated film adaptation made by the amazing Irish studio Cartoon Saloon (song of the sea, wolfwalker), this top-level synopsis of the plot retains some of the characters and indelible design of Boris the Dragon (as illustrated by the author’s stepmother, Ruth Chrisman Gannett). Boris is plump and puppy-like, striped blue and yellow, with floppy ears and small golden wings. Other than that, the film discards almost everything else. Director Nora Twomey (the breadwinner, The Secret of Kells) and screenwriter Meg LeFauve (Pixars from the inside to the outside) reworked the Gannetts’ fragmentary, surreal little parable into something more akin to a conventionally constructed children’s film, but they also made it more exciting and resonant. It’s a beautiful movie.
In this version, the young Elmer (Jacob Tremblay) – who, we understand, will grow up to be the father of the unseen older narrator (Mary Kay Place) – leads a happy life with his single mother in a tiny town (Golshifteh Farahani), who runs a thriving convenience store that caters for every need. Then come hard times. (Twomey makes the transition clear by dropping a glowing tangerine from an overflowing box onto the floor, where it rolls and evaporates — a wonderfully understated, eloquent gesture.) Boy and mother move into a seedy boarding house in a busy industrial city, where he struggles to adjust to their rootless, impoverished new circumstances. After Elmer’s mother chases away a street cat he took in, he chases after her down into the bowels of town. Passing through a narrow gap, he emerges in an imaginative new reality where the cat speaks (with Whoopi Goldberg’s mischievous purr) and leads him on an adventure on the back of an excited baby whale.
This new setting grounds the story in a psychological reality the book never had, while honoring its mid-century American genesis. The far-reaching ideas of Twomey and LeFauve do not stop there. In the book, the animals of Wild Island are vain and lazy, and when the dragon falls from the sky, they catch it and use it as an air taxi, flying them across a river they can’t swim or walk around. The film’s Wild Island is a more complicated, metaphorical, and morally ambiguous place.
This island, dome-shaped and forbidding, is constantly sinking into the sea. His animals, desperate to survive, have captured Boris (Gate Matarazzo) because he’s strong enough, when harnessed to the rocks of the island itself, to pull the entire landmass out of the water. The more he draws, the more it sinks, but Saiwa the Gorilla (Ian McShane), the authoritarian, caring but narrow-minded leader of the animals, is out of other ideas. There are secrets too: a gaping cavern of bright white fire at the island’s summit, the legend of an all-knowing turtle somewhere in its heart, and crude hieroglyphics of a fire-breathing “after dragon” who aspires to be Boris. The dragon and the island seem to have something to do with each other, but what?
Unlike the book, which saves the boy-dragon encounter until the end, Twomey and LeFauve waste no time bringing them together. Exploring the island together, Elmer and Boris encounter a rhino trapped with its baby, a belligerent crocodile and its brood, some ferocious but adorable plump tigers, and a squad of angry, spherical hamsters. The animals are played for laughs and pathos by an all-star cast that includes the likes of Dianne Wiest, Judy Greer, Chris O’Dowd and Alan Cumming. McShane, his delightfully rich voice marinated in anger and concern, steals the scenery as a gorilla with the weight of the whole island on his shoulders.
Tremblay and Matarazzo bond as the imaginative, serious boy and the foolish, hopeful dragon. As so often in stories like this, the child and its fantastic companion are two sides of the same coin: mature and immature, narrow-minded and open-minded, ego and it. Of course, they will help each other overcome fears, accept new realities, and move on. This is the part of the film that feels most formulaic. But it’s still touching, especially in the context of Elmer’s “real” life in the city and what he’s running from there. What lingers longest after the credits roll, however, is the social allegory of the island’s animals drowning not out of ignorance or laziness, but because they don’t understand how to save themselves and are willing to shift that burden onto someone else.
Cartoon Saloon fans will assume this goes without saying, but for the uninitiated: My father’s dragon is beautiful. It’s a 2D animation, illustrated in a sparse but expressive style. It has a cleaner, less obviously hand-drawn look than Untamed wolfwalker, but Twomey’s keen sense of scale and her simple, awe-inspiring compositions create a strong emotional geography for the story and a surprisingly epic, cataclysmic canvas for the plot. This is a director and studio at the top of their craft, with the confidence to take a beloved classic and transform it into something bigger – and deeper.
My father’s dragon debuts November 11 on Netflix.