In a world of 3D animation and complicated concepts, My Father’s Dragon is a refreshingly simple and sweet coming-of-age story with gorgeous hand-drawn animation. The film is co-produced by Netflix Animation, Cartoon Saloon, Mockingbird Pictures, and Parallel Films, but it’s definitely Cartoon Saloon’s touch that is felt most strongly. Though it doesn’t offer the cultural focus that many of the studio’s films have, it does contain the same beautiful 2D animation and widespread appeal for both child and adult audiences.
It’s perhaps no surprise that the film is gorgeous, considering the talent behind it. Director Nora Twomey is best known for directing The Breadwinner, while scriptwriter Meg LeFauve wrote the screenplays for Inside Out and The Good Dinosaur. For this film, LeFauve and John Morgan adapted Ruth Stiles Gannett’s 1948 children’s novel of the same name. The period setting of the film is unclear; it feels influenced by the Great Depression and wartime economy but is also so timeless that a child wouldn’t question it.
Elmer (voiced by Luca’s Jacob Tremblay) is a clever and resourceful young boy who loves helping his mother (Golshifteh Farahani) in the store she runs. When the money dries up, and she is forced to close the story, Elmer is heartbroken. Before moving to the aptly-named big city of Nevergreen, he gathers little leftover items from the store in his backpack, determined that they will use them to open a new store.
Elmer’s mother encourages his dream of a new store in the city, putting on what we can tell is false optimism for his sake. But she is mainly concerned with being able to pay the rent for their crumbling attic apartment to their stern landlady Mrs. McClaren (Academy Award winner Rita Moreno). Elmer is perhaps too perceptive for his own good and calls his mother out on her lack of dedication to their big plan, resulting in a big fight.
A talking cat (Academy Award winner Whoopi Goldberg) suggests to Elmer that if he traveled to Wild Island and brought back a dragon, it could fix his and his mother’s problems. Elmer travels there on the back of a giggly whale named Soda (Judy Greer) but is dismayed to find out that Wild Island has its own problems. It’s sinking into the sea, and the animals are nervously panicking. Their patriarch, a gorilla named Saiwa (Ian McShane), promises that as long as they keep the dragon contained, the island won’t sink. McShane’s vocal performance makes Saiwa intimidating, despite not being the largest or strongest animal on the island.
Elmer needs the dragon himself and uses the broken scissors in his backpack to cut him loose, the first of many uses he will find for his collection of bits and bobs. He’s a bit disappointed when he meets Boris (Gaten Matarazzo), who is far from the fierce fire-breathing creature he was promised. Boris is quite small and silly, with a hurt wing and a fear of both fire and water. He longs to become an after-dragon with great powers, but he needs to save the island to do so.
Matarazzo’s fantastic voice performance is the best thing about the film, as he both delights and breaks your heart. He’s very animated (no pun intended) and has impressive control over his voice for a young actor. Those familiar with Matarazzo’s work on Stranger Things or on Broadway will be delighted to see him in another role that suits his youthful enthusiasm so well, making Boris impossible not to get attached to.
Boris is the perfect foil for Elmer, and their friendship blossoms. While the young dragon must develop his self-confidence, the young boy has to learn that he doesn’t have to solve every problem himself. As the pair meet many animals on the island as they journey through, Elmer takes it upon himself to help those who need it and fight those who threaten them.
The storybook style of the film is very well suited to a story that depends so largely on the idea of children’s imagination. It’s inspired by the book’s original illustrations by Ruth Chrisman Gannett and is colorful without ever seeming garish. There are many creatively framed shots, and the animals are more cutesy than realistic, particularly Boris himself.
My Father’s Dragon isn’t afraid to take on mature themes around responsibility and parent-child relationships. Thus, it has much to offer to adults watching it, even if it’s somewhat traditional otherwise. There’s a melancholy air to it as you get the sense that Elmer is a boy growing up too fast, despite his mother’s best efforts, and siblings Jeff and Mychael Danna’s score reinforces it. Many animated films lean too far into appealing to either adults or children, but My Father’s Dragon does an excellent job of staying in the middle ground. Twomey and LeFauve have created something special, and this friendly little dragon will surely delight children and adults for years to come.
Netflix will release My Father’s Dragon globally on November 11.