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Since 2009, Cartoon Saloon has been in the major conversation of being one of the greatest animation studios around. With five films under their belt with a multitude of award nominations and critical acclaim, they have become one of the landmark heads of animation. The Secret of Kells, Song of the Sea, The Breadwinner, and Wolfwalkers have shown what they can do with their stories that are aimed at all ages, telling compelling stories of family and showing off some of the last decade’s best 2D animation. Tom Moore and Nora Twomey have both put out some incredible works, and that won’t stop anytime soon, especially with the acclaim of Nora’s newest film, My Father’s Dragon, which took home one of the main three prizes at Animation is Film a few weeks ago.
Directed by Nora Twomey, written by Meg Lefauve, and produced by Cartoon Saloon and Mockingbird Pictures, we follow the story of a boy named Elmer, voiced by Jacob Trembly, who moves from a vibrant village to a cold and imposing new city due to his hometown falling under economic despair. After an argument with his mother, he runs away to the docks to scream his frustration with the world and how his mother and he are unfortunately given a bad hand. With all that said, Elmer encounters a talking cat voiced by Whoopi Goldberg, and she tells Elmer how he can change his luck around by going to an island that’s far off into the ocean blue to find a real-life dragon to bring back. As he journeys to this island with the help of a whale, he finds that the dragon is being held hostage by a large gorilla named Saiwa, voiced by Ian McShane. After freeing the dragon, he catches a ride and ends up crashing into a different part of the island with said dragon. As he awakens, he meets the dragon in the flesh whose name is Boris, voiced by Gaten Matarazzo. The two go on a journey to assist Elmer to get off the island to help his mother, and for Boris to be a stronger dragon. Can they do all of this while the island is slowly sinking and tensions are rising between the island’s inhabitants?
One of the first things you will notice is how this film has a more western film vibe to it. Not that it’s a bad thing, but it definitely stands out from the rest of Cartoon Saloon’s catalog. From the writing to the more celebrity-studded cast, it has more American film ideologies. The cast is great, and it’s not like Cartoon Saloon hasn’t used celebrities before, but not to this unusual degree. Still, if your agent told you there was an opening for a film from this prestigious studio, I wouldn’t say no to that possible casting gig. Some of the jokes and humor come off as slightly modern, but it’s all pretty universal humor, so don’t expect me to say that it has more western sensibilities than something on the level of old DreamWorks. With the writing and how the story unfolds, it’s probably the most approachable film from the studio. The other films are also approachable by any film and animation fan of all ages, but this one is more family-friendly, and that isn’t a bad thing. Not every film needs to be aimed at hardcore film fans. Animation has no age limit.
With all that said, what does that mean for the overall story? From Animation is Film, Nora and her team talked about how they needed to expand upon the story as the book wasn’t very long. The story itself added on the struggling mother and son storybeat to give a reason for Elmer to arrive at the island, and how we see the animals on Wild Island are reliant on a temporary solution to stop a long-term problem. The fun thing about how the story unfolds is while there are some antagonistic forces like Kwan, everyone is driven by fear of change and uncertainty. There are no real overarching villains, as Saiwa wants to save the island and protect everyone by using Boris to solve the problem. It’s a coming-of-age story as we take a journey to Elmer becoming brave for him and his mother, and Boris becoming a better dragon. Much of the time, the characters are told that being afraid is a bad thing, but it’s okay. Fear is a natural part of living. Like a Sam Elliot-voiced T-rex from Pixar’s The Good Dinosaur once said “You can’t get rid of fear. It’s like mother nature. Can’t beat her or outrun her, but you can get through it.” I know we are quoting a Pixar film to describe one of the major storybeats of My Father’s Dragon. Suit up. Now, granted, how the story gets from point A to point B can be a tad predictable, which is a shame due to how many Cartoon Saloon films tend to have solutions and outcomes that are not the easiest things to obtain. The story also touches upon how greed/selfishness can force us to make bad decisions, and how working together to help one another can make fixing the solution better. It might be aimed at an overall audience, but the beauty of this film’s story can still be seen through its visuals and writing.
The animation is jaw-dropping and gorgeous. It’s Cartoon Saloon and its iconic visual style, so what do you expect? Sure, they didn’t use the distinct felt-like visuals of the original, but they were able to adapt the designs from the book to this film and they pulled it off. The world they create feels like it’s right out of a children’s book with how they craft the locations from the original story of Elmer and his mom, the gloomy and soulless look of the city they move into, to the patchwork and vibrant locales of Wild Island. Even the smaller locations have so much life to them, and, of course, seeing them all on the big screen made those visuals pop even more. The music by brother duo Jeff and Mychael Danna brings a fanciful approach to the world this film throws you into, and the two are extremely talented individuals. Mychael Danna was the same composer behind The Life of Pi, whereas Jeff Danna was behind films like Silent Hill, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, and Pixar’s Onward. He composed the latter two films alongside his brother. While the English voice cast is definitely more star-studded than in previous endeavors, they still chose some pretty good actors. Of course, Jacob Trembly does a fabulous job as Elmer, Ian McShane and Chris O’Dowd are imposing as the antagonistic force of the Saiwa and Kwan. The one that was the biggest surprise to me is Gaten Matarazzo as Boris the titular dragon. Most would know Gaten from the hugely successful Stranger Things franchise and the recently released Honor Society. It was good to see him in a different realm outside of the hit Netflix series to see where he could go, and he brings a delightfully goofy, but layered performance to the character. The rest of the cast that also perform their roles well include Golshifteh Farahani, Jackie Earl Haley, Dianne West, Alan Cumming, Judy Greer, Rita Moreno, Leighton Meester, and Spence Moore II. Some leave a stronger impression than others, but the cast definitely vibes well with the overall adventure rather than becoming distracting.
While a touch clunky at times, My Father’s Dragon is a whimsical journey for our young hero to overcome the fear of the unknown and hurdles that life may throw at you. It’s a shame that many people weren’t able to see this on a big screen. Pandemic or not, this deserved to have had a wider big-screen release than it got. Sure, I might rank it a touch lower than other Cartoon Saloon films, but considering how they don’t have a bad film in their lineup, then that doesn’t really mean much. It’s a good movie that deserves to be checked out by everyone. We need to make sure films by studios and teams like Cartoon Saloon do well, because they show a different side to animation that most US audiences won’t get. Now then, next time, we will be talking about one of the most critically acclaimed animated films of the year. You will just have to see what it is next time.