‘My Father’s Dragon’ Review: A Cowardly Dragon Earns His Wings in a Charming Picture Book Adventure

Children’s literature loves few things as much as a mighty monster who remains, against all outward appearances, defiantly benign — one who sets out to soothe young nightmares after initially stoking them, ultimately proving that fears and anxieties aren’t limited to little folk. Boris, the cheerfully dorky title character in Ruth Stiles Gannett’s 1948 book “My Father’s Dragon,” is cut from the same soft felt as Frank L. Baum’s Cowardly Lion, Roald Dahl’s Big Friendly Giant or Jill Murphy’s Worst Witch. A would-be flying fire-breather who hasn’t yet found his wings or his flames, he has even more growing up to do than fearful 10-year-old hero Elmer, and their mutual guilelessness sets the tone for Irish animator Nora Twomey’s winningly sweet-natured, visually transporting adaptation.

The overriding gentleness of “My Father’s Dragon” is a trademark virtue for Cartoon Saloon, the Ireland-based animation studio that has won hearts (and multiple Oscar nominations) with its combination of literate classical storytelling and hand-crafted artistry in such features as “The Breadwinner” (also helmed by Twomey) and “Wolfwalkers.” Their first collaboration with Netflix, the studio’s latest — premiering at the London Film Festival, and slated for a global release on November 11 — dials back a little on the latter’s mythic complexity, but at no cost to their usual charm. Expressly targeting very young children, and mellow but never dull in its unhurried telling and picture-book aesthetic, it’s a pleasing corrective to the slick, high-concept freneticism of sundry Disneys and Pixars — even as it pinches screenwriter Meg LeFauve (“Inside Out,” “The Good Dinosaur”) from their ranks.

As Mary Kay Place’s Southern-fried narrator immediately establishes a cozy fireside tone — framing what follows, per the title, as a hand-me-down story from her dad — the film’s opening stages likewise situate proceedings in a non-specific America of non-specific yore. Enterprising young Elmer (Jacob Tremblay) spends his days helping out his doting immigrant mother Dela (Golshifteh Farahani) in their busy small-town general store, until financial woes force them to the Gotham-like metropolis of Nevergreen, where they dream of better days from the cramped confines of their bare attic apartment, hawkishly monitored by miserly landlady Mrs. McLaren (Rita Moreno).

If these establishing stages are on the pedestrian side — distinguished more by the animation team’s expressionistic, shades-of-smoke design of Nevergreen itself than some rote writing and voice work — the pace and palette pick up when a lonely, frustrated Elmer runs away from home and is swiftly ushered into fantasyland by a talking street cat. (And not just any talking street cat: one archly voiced by Whoopi Goldberg, no less.) Cue a whirlwind whaleback ride to the colorful, fauna-ruled and steadily sinking Wild Island, where he’s instructed to rescue the captive Boris (Gaten Matarazzo) and somehow keep the island afloat.

It’s a daunting quest further complicated by the goofy, permanently distracted temperament of a dragon who exudes less formidable reptilian menace than Barney the Dinosaur — and is hardly a match for his captor, gruff gorilla and island ruler Saiwa (Ian McShane). Courtesy of Matarazzo’s puppyish tones, Boris is the consistent comic relief in an otherwise sweetly earnest tale of self-belief and self-realization, in which boy and beast alike will gain a certain maturity from each other. Stiles Gannett’s tale was traditional enough even on publication, and Twomey and LeFauve haven’t strained to modernize it: The action, gradually incorporating an Ark’s worth of exotic animals on the island, isn’t as whizz-bang as the film’s most obvious analog, “How to Train Your Dragon,” but there’s a nourishing emotional payoff to it.

Any lulls, meanwhile, are tided over by Michael and Jeff Danna’s ornate, romping orchestral score and the positively edible delights of the animation, which follows the studio house style of playing minimalist 2D character design against far more lushly textured, tactile backdrops. Wild Island is presented here as a globular, scale-shifting wonderland in shades of plum, burnt orange and mallard teal: The film’s world-building is seductive enough that we aren’t particularly inclined to rush our young, fumbling duo through a roundabout mission that culminates in some hard-earned literal pyrotechnics. 

Indeed, if it weren’t for the “no place like home” gravitational pull that grounds all such children’s stories — one that tugs at boy and dragon alike — you’d question the wisdom of leaving Wild Island for the dank, inhospitable city at all. Even those sodden streets emerge a little brighter and kinder, however, by the end of “My Father’s Dragon,” as Cartoon Saloon’s streak of combining fine art and warm sentiment continues unbroken. The studio may have enough of a signature by this point to be considered a heavy hitter, but rather like Boris himself, they still don’t act like it.

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