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Ever since the surprise Best Animated Feature Oscar nomination for its debut film, The Secret of Kells (2009), Irish studio Cartoon Saloon has enjoyed a blossoming international reputation among festival programmers, award voters and animation-hungry audiences alike. But Kells’s two co-directors have walked distinct creative paths since their first success. Tomm Moore has delved deeper into Irish mythology with Song of the Sea (2014) and Wolfwalkers (2020), while Nora Twomey has looked further afield for inspiration: to Taliban-era Afghanistan for The Breadwinner (2017), and now to the US for My Father’s Dragon.
It is also, notably, the studio’s first feature collaboration with Netflix, which might go some way to explaining some of its more pronounced shifts from what has come before. Loosely adapted by frequent Pixar screenwriter Meg LeFauve (Inside Out, 2015) from Ruth Stiles Gannett’s post-war novel of the same name, the film sports a cast of Hollywood-grade voice talent, led by Jacob Tremblay (Room, 2015; Doctor Sleep, 2019) as our hero Elmer, and Gaten Matarazzo (Stranger Things, 2016-) as Boris, the cuddly, green-and-yellow-striped young dragon Elmer befriends and helps escape from the perilous Wild Island.
Unlike the formal innovations of Wolfwalkers, which contrasted sharp-edged designs for its British colonial characters with free-flowing pencil-sketch linework for the Celtic upstarts, My Father’s Dragon adopts a clean, colourful storybook approach that befits its skew towards younger audiences. But the film isn’t unsophisticated: for every armpit fart joke demanded by its buddy-movie stylings, there are shades of complexity one would struggle to find in major studio animated fare. The design of the film’s ostensible antagonists – the creatures of Wild Island who have imprisoned Boris – strikes an intriguing balance between charming and chilling. These creatures also have concerns of their own, something best expressed in a genuinely nerve-rattling scene featuring a snap-happy crocodile (voiced by Alan Cumming), who juggles terrorising Elmer with caring for several tiny hatchlings, all vying for his attention. A working parent, even in this fantasy land.
Responsibility is the theme of the day, and the film takes great care to give weight to its tweenage protagonist’s plight. Elmer is eager to be an adult, but still has some way to go. His growing confidence in himself and the world around him gives him the false burden of having to solve everyone’s problems, from his mother’s financial woes to Boris’s anxieties about growing into a mature ‘after-dragon’. My Father’s Dragon directly addresses that impulse, and attempts to reassure its viewers, young and old, that it’s okay to not have all the answers.
► My Father’s Dragon is available to stream on Netflix UK now.