My Father's Dragon - Nora Twomey
Credit: Netflix
by Esmé Holden Featured Film Streaming Scene

My Father’s Dragon — Nora Twomey

November 14, 2022

My Father’s Dragon bears little of the depth or artistry that has made Cartoon Saloon features worthy of note in recently years.

In The Secret of Kells (2009), the debut feature of Kilkenny-based animation studio Cartoon Saloon, a young boy named Brendan (Evan McGuire) becomes obsessed with the magical book of Kells. He only wants to fill its pages, despite the town abbot (Brendan Gleeson) insisting he help build a huge wall to defend them from an oncoming invasion of Vikings, who are drawn so abstractly that they become the idea of chaos manifest. Finding the value of creating art in the darkest of times is such a wonderful notion, but that film’s storytelling doesn’t live up to its beautiful design and animation; it never feels like it’s moving in any clear direction, just wandering around narrative beats that are ultimately very conventional. It’s a problem the studio has continued to struggle with: a divorce between the animation, the form, and the narrative. Even the broadly successful Wolfwalkers (2020) bridges the gap by creating effective and uniquely animated sequences that are still in total in service to the conventional story; they are all designed around the script.

But near the end of Kells, the dialogue, the core to the modern conventions of screenwriting, suddenly disappears, and for the film’s final ten minutes we follow Brendan as he becomes a spiritual leader, using the book of Kells to guide his people from their wrecked town. He grows into adulthood and they all become nomadic, finding a fundamentally different way of living, and so too does the story transcend its previous confines. At last, it aligns with the form, the moving and geometric backgrounds of a world alive with an unformed but deeply felt spirituality. It’s a high Cartoon Saloon would never reach again, least of all in their newest film, My Father’s Dragon. Although this latest effort was directed by studio co-founder and Kells co-director Nora Twomey, it’s a Netflix co-production filled with familiar American voices, and the studio’s iconic artistic style has been sanded down to be only just recognizable. Abstraction and geometry are faintly suggested, lying underneath the surface here, a shame given how fitting those elements would be in a film like this, which is mostly set within a child’s imagination. 

At first, it almost seems as if the visual cues are being borrowed from a live action model, an effect to separate the sad real life of Elmer (Jacob Tremblay) from the world of his fantasy. He and his mother (Golshifteh Farahani) had to close down the shop that gave them so much meaning and move to a dingy city apartment made up mostly of leaking pipes. Elmer’s mother promises him that their old life will come back, but eventually has to admit that isn’t true when she needs to use the coins they were saving to open a new shop to call desperately for any job she can get. Elmer gets angry at her for lying and runs off into his fantasy world, which rather dishearteningly ends up being animated and composed in much the same way as the preceding city sequences. Wild Island has a couple of unique creatures: Cornelius (Alan Cummings) and his children look less like crocodiles than shapes — a straight line with a circle for an eye — but little of the visual character here ever registers as anything more than lightly pretty. The backgrounds are static, at best giving the effect of a storybook, but they are unlike the breathing worlds of the studio’s previous films, animated creations that seemed like intuitive places for mythology to come to life. The only time the animation is allowed to break free from these constraints in My Father’s Dragon, it’s still in a manner that would land as unexceptional in those earlier films, and also comes in a self-contained, one-off scene, quickly reeled in for the next screenplay beat. 

As Elmer tries to save the crumbling Island, he becomes the straight man to the hyperactive dragon Boris (Gaten Matarazzo), who loves to show off his armpit farting skills. It’s a strange choice to establish this dynamic, given that the problem in Elmer’s real life could be seen as a lack of pragmatism, a difficulty in facing the hard reality that his Mother admittedly hid from him. But in this way, the world Elmer is imagining becomes one where he’d make the same choices his Mother did, and he finds himself lying about the Island’s darkest secrets so as not to scare Boris. The idea that fantasy can be a useful tool for cultivating empathy recalls the dim embers of the ending of Kells: art and imagination aren’t inherently solipsistic, but rather have great communal value. 

Perhaps because Cartoon Saloon has drawn so much from mythology before, Wild Island isn’t so much a metaphor as it is a parallel, and even in a way it’s refreshingly literal. Elmer is not seeing his situation represented — or rather, we aren’t being shown a self-consciously artistic representation — but seeing it reproduced, and his mind wanders back to his own life. It’s tenable enough narratively, but the film becomes far too lost in the fantasy world, all of it dragged forward by the rather conventional screenwriting. Elmer’s growing empathy is eventually an idea abandoned, left on Wild Island, as he returns home and resolves the conflict with his Mother in two lines that suggest a much more rudimentary message. When Elmer and his Mother fought in the first place, even though they shouted lines that communicated their strong emotions (and their screenplay function), there wasn’t any sense of depth to these Cartoon Saloon creations — they were simply drawings. Which is to say, there isn’t much point in thinking about My Father’s Dragon’s place within the heralded studio’s filmography; more than anything, this is just more content to be ground up into the Netflix machine. The film was delayed for a year in order to help fulfill the streaming giant’s commitment to releasing a certain amount of animated films in a given year, and it seems likely than in one more year more My Father’s Dragon will be all but forgotten.

You can currently stream Nora Twomey’s My Father’s Dragon on Netflix.