“My Father’s Dragon”
Rated PG. On Netflix.
From Netflix and Cartoon Saloon, the animation company that gave us the Academy Award-nominated films “Wolfwalkers” (2019), “Song of the Sea” (2014) and “The Secret of Kells” (2009) comes “My Father’s Dragon,” a 2D-animated entry based on the 1948 children’s novel by American writer Ruth Stiles Gannett.
The film is a trippy “Wizard of Oz”-like tale of a boy named Elmer (Jacob Tremblay), who runs away from his mother (Golshifteh Farahani) and the scary, big city where she takes him after their country store fails. Lured to a dock by an alley cat (Whoopi Goldberg), Elmer finds himself being ferried by a notably effervescent whale named Soda (Judy Greer) to a place called Wild Island. Elmer’s “real world” is reminiscent of Recession-era America. Wild Island is a tree-shrouded, artichoke-shaped multi-colored wonderland, where a group of talking animals struggle to survive as the island threatens to sink.
Led by wise gorilla Saiwa (Ian McShane), the animals – howler monkeys, a rhinoceros named Iris (Dianne Wiest), a tarsier named Tamir (Jackie Earle Haley), a macaque named Kwan (Chris O’Dowd), a crocodile named Cornelius (Alan Cumming), a tiger named Sasha (Leighton Meester) and more – have captured a blue-and-yellow-striped, winged dragon named Boris (Gaten Matarazzo, TV’s “Stranger Things”). They restrain Boris to help keep the island from sinking by using his strength and wings to lift the island out of the sea. When Elmer recklessly frees Boris from his thick, rubbery binds, the two flee to seek out a wise entity named Aratuah in the island’s heights. Did I mention that many of the difficulties Elmer finds himself in recall his troubles in the “real world?”
Elmer is resourceful and smart and has a rucksack full of things retrieved from the old store: a broken mirror, a strawberry lollipop, tangerines, a magnifying glass, a pair of scissors and more. If “The Wizard of Oz” has a Cowardly Lion, a Tin Man and a Scarecrow, “My Father’s Dragon” has a dragon utterly lacking in confidence in Boris, and Matarazzo puts a delightfully daffy stamp on the creature. Elmer and Boris’ adventures are certain to keep children entertained, if not enthralled.
Gannett’s novel was previously adapted by Tapei-born animator Masami Hata (“Elmer no boken,” 1997). This new, inspired-by version, directed by Irishwoman Nora Twomey (“The Breadwinner”) and scripted by Meg LeFauve (“Inside Out”), features striking, dreamlike imagery based on the original book’s illustrations by the author’s stepmother Ruth Chrisman Gannett, but also redolent of previous Cartoon Saloon efforts.
Elmer and Boris, whose journey takes them through a forest of dandelions and has them walking beneath gargantuan mushrooms, are the same age, although in human years Boris is 100. Their friendship is the heart of the film. They form a bond that is tested by fears and suspicions at first, but slowly becomes strong, trusting and nurturing. Boris yearns to become an “after dragon,” a more evolved creature with the ability to breathe fire. But he is afraid and uncertain of making the transformation. Elmer, who has his own fears concerning the future, tries to help his friend. It’s clear why so many adults remember reading this book as children. That is the legendary Rita Moreno as Elmer and his mother’s mean landlord. Music by the Danna Brothers, who scored Twomey’s previous effort “The Breadwinner,” includes a thematic whistle that Elmer and Boris use to communicate. As a story about the rewards and importance of friendship in our lives, “My Father’s Dragon” soars.
(“My Father’s Dragon” contains scenes of peril and hardship)