It took an extra moment of time and patience, but 2022 has indeed shaped up into a sterling year for animation. And now one of its quietest, bravest, and most unexpected, could easily represent the top class. Ireland’s Cartoon Saloon has countlessly proven across their works how quiet they can be to resonate with an audience. Even when, and if it means taking a half step back. In the case of My Father’s Dragon, it’s a bit quieter, a tad smaller. But no less meaningful if its approach to childhood fear and optimism has any say. It may not match the grandiose impact Wolfwalkers offered, and yet it still symbolizes the indie’s place in the medium. Scrappy, and with the hugest of hearts.
That alone best recounts director Nora Twomey’s (The Breadwinner) protagonist, one iconizing brash naivety and buoyancy. 10-year-old Elmer (Jacob Tremblay) has moved to a new city with mom Dela (Golshifteh Farahani), a major metropolis where the money’s better after recessions drove out their foot traffic as owners of a small-town general store. The pair have always been resourceful, and those skills are evaluated as Dela struggles to keep a roof under their heads. Elmer is a bit too upbeat, anxious even, to return to better times, while saving up for a new storefront next door to their apartment. Disputes and disagreements get the better of both, with Elmer running away, following a curious alley cat (Whoopi Goldberg) who clues him in on the mysterious Wild Island.
Therein lies a captive dragon who could assist Elmer in drawing wanted attention. What he encounters is a troubled haven for nature to thrive, with surprisingly calm primate chief Saiwa (Ian McShane) guiding his constituents. Among them, anger-prone macaque Kwan (Chris O’Dowd), nervy tarsier Tamir (Jackie Earle Haley), helpful whale Soda (Judy Greer), and exasperated crocodile dad Cornelius (Alan Cumming). They can only survive, if the fabled reptile, an equally gullible kid named Boris (Gaten Matarazzo) keeps flapping his wings. Once he and Elmer collide, it might not be so much a desire for personal gain, as it is a journey to protect a broken community.
On its pastel-painted, storybook-like surface (it bears inspiration from a classic page-turner by Ruth Stiles Gannett), My Father’s Dragon might appear juvenile and old-fashioned. The latter does grant it a timeless quality, in the hands of co-writers Meg LeFauve (Onward) and John Morgan. The type where “leaping off the page” is taken literally, with a palette reminiscent of Maurice Sendak or Lois Ehlert. Pivoting from an industrious reality to the extravagant and unashamedly adorable fantasy of Elmer and Boris’s plight shouldn’t be so seamless. Without thinking too deeply, the film wanders between worlds like it were a child’s subconscious. And much like a complex dream in REM sleep, it embraces visual splendor like life itself. In one way, eye-catching and beautiful, in both character design and landscapes. Another way, contributing to the combined sensation of anxiety and self-acceptance. Something both Boris and Elmer share, trying to find their place.
The two leads encounter each other with unchecked confidence. Elmer’s compass runs largely on grown-up logic – quite the coping strategy for his fish-out-of-water syndrome – while Boris’s is a little more brash and mischievous. It’s quite the see-saw, with plenty of push and shove. Newfound friends, if not also adoptive brothers, not immediately seeing eye-to-eye, but firmly reliant on each other’s strengths. A very precise segment of life’s experiences that’s overly familiar to animated tales. But never this subtle, until LeFauve approaches it from a cautious, open-minded perspective, exposing their frustrations and avenues to their humble heroics.
Neither is lost between Tremblay and Matarazzo. A flawless union of joyous innocence to break the previously worn-out trend of a mismatched buddy comedy. Matarazzo, especially, delivers a farcical home run, reviving the role of a playful comic sidekick without any overarching theatrics, beyond silly quips and armpit farting. McShane is as much a delight with an astonishingly level-headed antagonist, his nefariousness entirely out of rational thinking instead of utter scorn. Every line of his emphasizes that strong bend of leadership, the exact same way O’Dowd expresses blind rage in his questioning of authority. Greer, Cumming, and Goldberg et al further inundate often colossal character strengths, the likes of which could only be enhanced by a handful of ensemble side stories.
I’m certain Twomey could find the right path to navigate any opportunity for lore to build on itself. Just like she did in whisking her audience from reality to a vibrant, dream-like realm with upbeat candor, and a myriad childish overtone. Boris is good like that, an adorable titan of unbridled, not overly annoying mirth-making. His perspective on life never means to clash with Elmer’s. Though it’s for the better they do, if only because they wouldn’t get along so wonderfully otherwise. And this duo does make for one of the year’s finer screen duos, embracing the unknown together, versus fearing what we might already know.
My Father’s Dragon may not surpass the more provoking ideas Cartoon Saloon’s brain trust had been known to express in their growing collection of cinematic art, nor does it need to. It’s easily in a class by itself, embiggening the smallness of childhood friendships where they begin, and evolving into a tear-shedding quest both dauntless and affectionate. While, in turn, maintaining their persistent, museum-level style. Leave it to the smaller animation houses to pull off a victory for the art form, done by hand, and with love for your fellow magical being. (A-; 4/5 Horns Up!)
My Father’s Dragon streams on Netflix November 11; rated PG for some peril; 99 minutes.