‘My Father’s Dragon’ Review: A Classic Children’s Book Gets Sweet Storytelling

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The 1948 children’s fantasy novel Newbery Honor by Ruth Stiles Gannett, My Father’s Dragon, gets the Cartoon Saloon treatment in Nora Twomey’s lovingly handcrafted feature film adaptation. Hosted by a star-studded voice cast led 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 inspiration directly from visual . from original illustrations by the author’s mother-in-law, Ruth Chrisman Gannett. It lacks the cultural specificity of the best Irish animation shop work, like wolf walkers and song of the seabut its retro 2D beauty and lively storytelling should appeal to a junior audience.

Premiering at the London Film Festival ahead of its November 11 Netflix launch, it’s the second feature film based on Gannett’s beloved book, following Masami Hata’s 1997 Japanese version. to more standard children’s adventure territory for director Twomey after 2017 The breadwinner, about an 11-year-old Afghan girl who came of age under the Taliban regime. But there’s a thematic overlap in the focus on preteen protagonists who find escape from life’s hardships but also from danger in fantasy stories, while seeking to take responsibility for their family’s hardships.

My Father’s Dragon

The essential

A film of gentle but transporting pleasures.

Venue: BFI London Film Festival (Family)
Release date: Friday 11 Nov.
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 Le Fauve; story by LeFauve and John Morgan, inspired by the children’s book by Ruth Stiles Gannett

PG rated, 1 hour 42 minutes

The screenplay by Meg LeFauve (Upside down) is “inspired by” Gannett’s Elmer and the dragon trilogy rather than a completely faithful translation, although it sticks to the original model in that the story is told by an unseen narrator (Mary Kay Place) recalling events in 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 in filling customer orders quickly. But those prosperous times prove to be short-lived, and when the recession hits, they lose the store to foreclosure.

His mother tries to reassure Elmer that everything will be fine as they set off for a fresh start in the city, and he gathers the few items left on the shelves in his backpack – a pair of scissors, a strawberry lollipop , a piece of chewing gum, a box of rubber bands – in stock for the opening of a new store. These random inventory chunks will come in handy when he soon finds himself on a perilous adventure in a strange and untamed place 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 dark destination called Nevergreen City. This relocation evokes tales of the Great Depression, heightened by the soulful chords of the score by sibling composers Jeff and Michael Danna. They rent a walk-up attic apartment with bad plumbing from grumpy landlord Mrs. McClaren (Rita Moreno) and Dela make one frustrating call after another about vacancies already filled. As she reminds Elmer that it’s his job to worry, not his, the boy sees the false optimism behind her promise of a new store.

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

As a thank you for Elmer’s kindness, the cat tells him about an “amazing, spectacular, real live, flying, fire-breathing dragon” on a place called Wild Island and connects him with a ride on his back. of a funny whale named Soda (Judy Greer). Elmer thinks he can turn the dragon into a money-making attraction to ease his mother’s burden and fund the new store.

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

When Elmer uses his scissors to cut the vines that tie Boris to the crater at the heart of the island, the two quickly become friends. But Boris turns out not to be quite the “incredible, spectacular, real, living, flying, fire-breathing dragon” described by the cat. He’s a child, much like Elmer, and his injured wing makes the clumsy jester’s rise to full-fledged “post-dragon” powers even harder than his self-doubt. His fear of fire and large bodies of water doesn’t help either.

While previous Cartoon Saloon features were notable for the folkloric, mythical, and ethnographic underpinnings of their stories, My Father’s Dragon will feel more generic for adult viewers. But kids should react warmly to Elmer and Boris’ odyssey as they journey across the island and face their fears, searching for answers to help the dragon find his fire and save the animal house from sinking.

The airy rapport established in the dialogue between Tremblay and Matarazzo is as important to appeal as the cute character designs. Elmer has a hint of the saucer-eyed anime boy about him, while Boris looks like a padded 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 intelligent, resourceful and decisive Elmer, acknowledging that he hasn’t always got it all figured out, while the insecure Boris learns to trust his instincts. It’s less a classic hero’s journey and more an experience of mutual growth, an exchange made more tender by the Danna Brothers’ lovely whistle theme.

The solid voice work and charming character concepts extend to the many animals – friends and foes – they encounter, with imagery echoing from Miyazaki to Maurice Sendak. Among the wild creatures are rhinoceros foster mother Iris (Dianne Wiest), haughty crocodile Cornelius (Alan Cumming), exuberant tiger siblings Sasha and George (Leighton Meester and Spence Moore II), alarmist tarsier Tamir ( Jackie Earle Haley) and the resentful macaque Kwan (Chris O’Dowd), who resents Saiwa’s leadership.

The episodic nature of the book carries over to some extent to the reimagined storyline, which isn’t always as smooth as it could be in its transitions or as clean in its plots. But the deep fondness for the source material shines through, and the hand-drawn painterly aesthetic is enchanting. A dream sequence that connects Elmer to his home and his mother is particularly beautiful, its monochromatic tones contrasting with the vivid colors of Wild Island.

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