PG, 100 minutes
As visually entrancing as the hand drawn classics of yesteryear, and while the characters are slight it resonates with the issues of our day
Review by © Jane Freebury
A pet dragon. What a great pet. A big, scaly, scary creature that breathes fire, flies across the sky and only answers to its young master, gets a good workout in children’s literature. Though sometimes the creature may need to learn what’s expected of it, like Boris, the dragon-in-training in this latest feature film from Irish animation studio, Cartoon Saloon, directed by Nora Twomey.
Young Elmer Elevator and his mom, Dela, have had to leave their home and move to the big city. After their store customers disappeared, they had to foreclose and move to Nevergreen for Dela to find work. The city folk aren’t friendly like folks were back home, and their new landlady Mrs McClaren (voiced by Rita Moreno) is the worst of the lot. The apartment she lets has barely a stick of furniture and the pipes hammer, but the truth is that Elmer and Dela, voiced by Jacob Tremblay and Golshifteh Farahani, have nowhere else to go.
Their alienated life in the grey, high-rise metropolis is beautifully captured in the line drawings with painterly colouring that Cartoon Saloon has adopted as its signature look, a distinctive and lovely alternative to our computer-generated universe. It is the company behind other animation features with gorgeous visuals, WolfWalkers, Song of the Sea and The Secret of Kells.
After arguing with his mom, Elmer runs away to the docks. A stray cat (voiced by Whoopi Goldberg) starts talking to him and a world of make-believe takes over as Elmer is spirited away across the water on the back of a friendly, bubble-blowing whale, Soda (voiced by Judy Greer). Islands of tangerine trees float into view, Elmer helps himself to his favourite fruit, and for a while he is in heaven.
Wild Island appears above the horizon, a pulsing, multi-coloured orb with an active volcano on top, and it spells trouble ahead. Elmer scrambles up one of the island’s giant roots after he’s washed off the whale’s back and finds himself in a tropical jungle. It is lorded over by the chief gorilla, Saiwa (an imperious Ian McShane), who is constantly reassuring the island’s tigers, estuarine crocodiles and other animal inhabitants, that they must not panic and stay calm. Why? Sea levels are rising.
A jittery monkey, Kwan (Chris O’Dowd), sits on Saiwa’s shoulder. He is the voice of doom, always in the big boss’s ear about rising sea levels, in contrast to other creatures who seem to exist in a fog of ignorance while their island sinks below the waves.
The children’s story on which this tale is based, the book of the same name by Ruth Stiles Gannett published in 1948, seems surprisingly prescient. Gannett, still with us at 99 years of age, is the mother of seven daughters, though the main character of her best-known childrens’ books is Elmer. My Father’s Dragon is the first of three novels, which seem likely to be adapted for the screen too. This first story has already appeared in other screen versions, including Elmer’s Adventure: My Father’s Dragon, a Japanese anime.
In this My Father’s Dragon, Boris (voiced by Gaten Matarazzo), is a bumbling big brother to Elmer who patiently shows him how to find his inner dragon. They are sweet together, but all the characters are under-developed by-and-large, so young audiences are likely to be more engaged by the story and the magic in the visuals.
While Boris won’t frighten the 3-to-5-year-olds the movie is aimed at, the threatening baboons in Saiwa’s primate tribe surely will. And there are other potentially scary moments for preschoolers, like when Elmer falls into a trap, when he is dragged underwater, and when Boris enters the volcano core to reverse the island’s fate. This and the disturbing underpinning message on climate change may need a bit of filtering.
Some say that children’s films like Toy Story, a triumph of CG animation in its day, don’t stand up to the test of time as well as the hand-drawn animation classics like Bambi of 1942 and 101 Dalmatians of 1961. And that the language of painting and illustration is timeless, while computer generated images have to depend on the latest technology. My Father’s Dragon is visually entrancing like the classics, but it’s hard to imagine that its characters will endure quite as well over time.