Back in 2020, I was lucky enough to catch Wolfwalkers as part of the London Film Festival. It was, I’m still ashamed to say, my first experience with the animation studio, Cartoon Saloon, which already had a number of Oscar-nominated titles under its belt. Wolfwalkers ended up being one of my favourite movies of that year, on par with Parasite for me, so to say I was excited about this follow-up would be an understatement. My Father’s Dragon is based on the classic children’s book by Ruth Stiles Gannett, which was first published in 1948 and still resonates with people to this day. The story teaches us that life can be scary and that we all get scared at times. But it only takes the qualities and abilities that are already there within us all to do amazing things – helping others and changing our own lives for the better.
Elmer (Jacob Tremblay) is ten years old. He likes to help his mother (Golshifteh Farahani) in their busy local grocery store where Elmer is adept at quickly locating items for customers on the well-stocked shelves. Business is good and Elmer and his mother are both happy. But then, for reasons unknown to us, times get hard for them both. The shop closes up and Elmer and his mother prepare to move to the city where Elmer is assured they will someday be able to set up a new store. With no stock to sell in this new shop, Elmer gathers up a few random items that have been left in the drawers and on the shelves – some broken scissors, a lollipop rubber bands and more – before storing them in his backpack for safekeeping.
Nevergreen City is a scary place with crowded streets. The apartment that Elmer and his mother are renting is small and unfurnished, with dodgy plumbing and a grumpy landlady (Rita Moreno). It overlooks a boarded-up shop across the street, which Elmer hopes will one day be theirs. But as time goes on, Elmer’s mother continues to struggle with finding work, some street kids bully Elmer and he starts to realise that life can be pretty scary and out of your control at times. His mom remains upbeat through it all, but when she discovers that a cat has followed Elmer into their apartment, breaking the strict no-pets rule, she loses her temper and Elmer runs away, upset and determined to try and find a way to help.
It’s here that things take a very sideways turn. Obviously, I was expecting a dragon to show up at some point, but if like me you are unfamiliar with the books, then the next big section of the movie plays out like a very strange and unexpected dream. The stray cat follows Elmer as he runs down to the docks and the water’s edge. When Elmer starts telling his problem to the cat, it starts talking back to him (voiced by Whoopi Goldberg!). She tells Elmer about a dragon that’s trapped on an island and Elmer suddenly thinks that if he can free the dragon and bring it back to Nevergreen City, all their problems will be solved. The cat has already arranged for a whale named Soda (Judy Greer) to transport Elmer to Wild Island and they set off immediately.
When they reach the island and Elmer releases the dragon, he discovers that it isn’t quite the big ferocious answer to his prayers that he was expecting. Voiced by Gaten Matarazzo, Boris is a stripy dragon with a broken wing, who cannot breathe fire and is afraid of water. Wild Island is in danger of sinking and Boris wants to be able to save the island in the hope that he will become an Afterdragon, a transformation which will mean he gains his fire and becomes fearless. For now though, Boris is a kid just like Elmer, and doesn’t have the answers he needs either.
Along the way to them both finding those answers and the courage they need to see them through, they meet Saiwa the gorilla (Ian McShane), Cornelius the crocodile (Alan Cumming), and many more wild and ferocious animals. It’s this part of the movie that didn’t work so well for me and didn’t really hold my interest, but that’s probably just down to my age. Hopefully, much younger viewers than me will enjoy the two young friends and the journey they undertake, but the story just didn’t grab me in the way that Wolfwalkers did. Director Nora Twomey, who directed Oscar-nominated The Breadwinner (also from Cartoon Saloon) wanted My Father’s Dragon to “help us all explore our journey to find answers and meaningful connections with others” and in that regard, I’d say she has certainly succeeded. It just didn’t grip me for a large chunk of the middle section.
But that’s not to say that I wasn’t swept away by the rest of it. On top of the beautiful visuals and score that come with all Cartoon Saloon movies, My Father’s Dragon is narrated at the beginning and end by Elmer’s daughter, whom we never actually get to see. But by having her describe her father’s adventures in this way, you immediately get this wonderful fairytale feeling of Elmer growing up, becoming the kind of father who tells his amazing story time and again to his daughter over the years. I may not have been gripped by the middle, but I was certainly captured by its introduction and I was enchanted by its finale when Elmer and Boris both finally realise what it is that they need to do.
My Father’s Dragon will be available to stream on Netflix from 11th November
Web developer by day, with a movie and TV watchlist that continues to grow as much as my spare time reduces! My favourite movie is Inception and, despite what everyone says, I do not have a man-crush on Tom Cruise.