Classic Kids’ Book Gets Sweet Retelling – The Hollywood Reporter

Ruth Stiles Gannett’s 1948 Newbery Honor children’s fantasy novel, My Father’s Dragon, gets Cartoon Saloon treatment in Nora Twomey’s lovingly hand-crafted feature adaptation. Brought to life by a starry voice cast headed by Jacob Tremblay and Gaten Matarazzo as a 10-year-old boy named Elmer and Boris, the dragon with whom he discovers the rewards of friendship and bravery, respectively, the film takes its visual inspiration directly from the original illustrations by the author’s stepmother, Ruth Chrisman Gannett. It lacks the cultural specificity of the Irish animation boutique’s best work, like Wolfwalkers and Song of the Sea, but its retro 2D beauty and lively storytelling should please junior audiences.

World-premiering at the London Film Festival ahead of its Nov. 11 Netflix bow, this is the second feature based on Gannett’s beloved book, following Masami Hata’s 1997 Japanese version. It represents a move into more standard kids’ adventure territory for director Twomey after 2017’s The Breadwinner, about an 11-year-old Afghan girl coming of age under Taliban rule. But there’s thematic overlap in the focus on preteen protagonists finding escape from life’s hardships and also danger in fantastical stories, while seeking to shoulder responsibility for their families’ difficulties.

My Father’s Dragon

The Bottom Line

A film of gentle but transporting pleasures.

Venue: BFI London Film Festival (Family)
Release date: Friday, Nov. 11
Cast: Jacob Tremblay, Gaten Matarazzo, Golshifteh Farahani, Dianne Wiest, Rita Moreno, Chris O’Dowd, Judy Greer, Alan Cumming, Yara Shahidi, Jackie Earle Haley, Mary Kay Place, Leighton Meester, Spence Moore II, Whoopi Goldberg, Ian McShane
Director: Nora Twomey
Screenwriters: Meg LeFauve; story by LeFauve and John Morgan, inspired by the children’s book by Ruth Stiles Gannett

Rated PG,
1 hour 42 minutes

The screenplay by Meg LeFauve (Inside Out) is “inspired by” Gannett’s Elmer and the Dragon trilogy rather than a completely faithful translation, though it sticks to the original model in that the story is recounted by an unseen narrator (Mary Kay Place) recalling events from her father’s life decades earlier.

It begins during a happy time, as Elmer helps his mother Dela (Golshifteh Farahani) in her busy small-town grocery store; his skill at finding things makes him invaluable at filling customer’s orders swiftly. But those prosperous times prove short-lived, and when recession hits, they lose the store to foreclosure.

His mother tries to reassure Elmer that everything will be fine as they head off for a fresh start in the city, and he gathers the few items left on the shelves in his rucksack — a pair of scissors, a strawberry lollipop, a piece of chewing gum, a box of elastic bands — as stock for when they open a new store. Those random bits of inventory will be useful when he soon finds himself on a perilous adventure in a strange, untamed place where no child has ever been before.

Twomey and her animators inject eloquent notes of melancholy as mother and son drive through pouring rain on desolate roads to a gloomy destination called Nevergreen City. That relocation evokes Great Depression narratives, enhanced by the soulful strings of composer siblings Jeff and Mychael Danna’s score. They rent a walk-up attic apartment with bad plumbing from crabby landlady Mrs. McClaren (Rita Moreno) and Dela makes one frustrating call after another about positions that have already been filled. While she reminds Elmer that it’s her job to worry, not his, the boy sees the false optimism behind her promise of a new store.

Following an argument when an alley cat follows him home, Elmer runs away — in one of the film’s most visually striking sequences — through the densely populated city with its clouds of industrial smoke, menacing shadows and walls that seem to close in on him until he reaches the docks. The cat then surprises him by revealing that she can talk (voiced by Whoopi Goldberg).

As repayment for Elmer’s kindness, the cat tells him of an “amazing, spectacular, real live, flying, fire-breathing dragon” on a place called Wild Island and hooks him up with transport on the back of a giggly whale named Soda (Judy Greer). Elmer figures he can turn the dragon into a money-making attraction to ease his mother’s burden and finance the new store.

Most of the story takes place on Wild Island, which is sinking into the ocean, a plot embellishment that gives Elmer instability in his adventure to match that of his reality in Nevergreen. The island is kept above sea level only by the exertions of the dragon, Boris, who is held captive by the silverback gorilla Saiwa (Ian McShane), patriarch of the island’s animal populace.

When Elmer uses his scissors to sever the vines tethering Boris to the crater at the heart of the island, the two become fast friends. But Boris turns out to be not quite the “amazing, spectacular, real live, flying, fire-breathing dragon” the cat described. He’s a child, much like Elmer, and his injured wing makes the clumsy goofball’s elevation to full-fledged “after-dragon” powers even more of a challenge than his self-doubt. His fear of fire and large bodies of water doesn’t help either.

While Cartoon Saloon’s previous features have been distinguished by the folkloric, mythic and ethnographic foundations of their stories, My Father’s Dragon will feel more generic to adult viewers. But kids should respond warmly to the odyssey of Elmer and Boris as they journey across the island and face their fears, looking for answers to help the dragon find his fire and stop the animals’ home from sinking.

The breezy rapport established in dialogue between Tremblay and Matarazzo is as significant to the appeal as the cute character designs. Elmer has a hint of the saucer-eyed anime boy about him, while Boris looks like a stuffed green and yellow striped sock, with red spikes running down the back of his long neck. Their touching friendship is strengthened by the symbiosis of smart, resourceful, decisive Elmer acknowledging that he doesn’t always have everything figured out, while insecure Boris learns to trust his instincts. It’s less a classic hero’s journey than an experience of mutual growth, an exchange given extra tenderness by the Danna Brothers’ pretty whistle theme.

The solid voice work and charming character concepts extend to the many animals — friends and foe — that they encounter, with echoes of imagery stretching from Miyazaki to Maurice Sendak. Among the wild creatures is nurturing mother rhinoceros Iris (Dianne Wiest), supercilious crocodile Cornelius (Alan Cumming), rambunctious tiger siblings Sasha and George (Leighton Meester and Spence Moore II), alarmist tarsier Tamir (Jackie Earle Haley) and resentful macaque Kwan (Chris O’Dowd), who chafes against Saiwa’s leadership.

The episodic nature of the book carries over to some degree into the reimagined screenplay, which is not always as fluid as it could be in its transitions or as clean in its storylines. But the deep fondness for the source material comes through, and the painterly hand-drawn aesthetic is enchanting. A dream sequence that connects Elmer back to his home and his mother is particularly lovely, its monochromatic tones contrasting to the vivid colors of Wild Island.

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