My Father’s Dragon review: Cartoon Saloon go global (and psychedelic)

There are fewer of the Celtic whorls, but the studio’s intimate, dappled aesthetic nonetheless remains firmly in place

My Father's Dragon
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Director: Nora Twomey
Cert: PG
Starring: 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, Adam Brody, Whoopi Goldberg, Ian McShane
Running Time: 1 hr 39 mins

Nora Twomey, in her two solo directorial efforts, has taken Cartoon Saloon, the promiscuously Oscar-nominated animation house, some distance from its roots in Kilkenny. The Breadwinner told the tale of a young girl struggling under Taliban rule in Afghanistan. Now Twomey tackles Ruth Stiles Gannett’s celebrated 1948 novel about a plucky lad tasked with rescuing a baby dragon from what now looks like an analogy for ecological annihilation.

One could mischievously argue that My Father’s Dragon is their first American film. The story begins there. The absurdly starry voice cast is largely composed of actors from that country (with a few notable exceptions). Netflix has been attached to the project from an early stage. And yet this still feels very much like a Cartoon Saloon joint. There are fewer of the Celtic whorls that wrapped themselves round Wolfwalkers or The Secret of Kells, but the studio’s intimate, dappled aesthetic nonetheless remains firmly in place. No enthusiast for their work could easily mistake this for Disney or Studio Ghibli. The team appear untainted by proximity to the big machine.

My Father’s Dragon begins in a mild idyll. Young Elmer (voiced by Jacob Tremblay) works in a small grocery shop with his caring single mother (Golshifteh Farahani). When economic crisis hits they are forced to make their way to a rainy, maritime city where they set up home in a grimy flat owned by the terrifying Mrs McClaren (Rita Moreno, no less). For all the flashy visuals that follow, these opening, melancholy sections are the most memorable. Animated in shades of grey, positioned in a nowhere that seems to be the US, but could equally accommodate any European misery, Nevergreen City is a masterpiece in low-key expressionistic gothic. Clouds menace. Mist infuses the bones. Mum tries to retain her patience while promising better times ahead. Elmer is not convinced.

Hopes rise when – as folks will in such things – Elmer encounters a plump cat that doesn’t merely speak, but speaks in the voice of Whoopi Goldberg (that’s two Oscar-winners in the voice talent already). His new feline chum tells him of a place called Wild Island where he might meet an “amazing, real-life, spectacular” dragon. There has to be money in that. Right?


From then on the film slips into a trippy psychedelia that has as much to do with Yellow Submarine as it does with Spirited Away. A chatty whale transports our hero to a fruit-stuffed archipelago called Tangerina and onwards to Wild Island. Elmer is surprised to discover that Boris the dragon, far from any terrifying Smaug, is a timid, sweet-natured blue thing – already a plush toy even before the merchandise folk get to work – with a keen awareness of his own limitations. A quest must be accomplished if the island is to be saved.

There is, alas, a bit of “lore” to be digested before the yarn powers forwarded. The island and the dragons are bonded in an uneasy harmony that requires the beasts to arrive as young creatures, do something or other to save the territory and thus get transformed into more powerful “after dragons”. Real religions have based themselves on less sturdy mythology.

Younger viewers will eat that stuff up. Their parents will have plenty to enjoy in the zany anthropomorphism. Ian McShane is unmistakably thunderous in the voice of the film’s nearest approximation to villain: a mighty silverback gorilla named Saiwa. I’m not at all sure about the freaky croc-thing voiced by Alan Cumming, but it did cause me to wonder if there was something suspicious in my brownie.

Such rampant weirdness saves My Father’s Dragon from any slide into generic family entertainment. In some ways it is Cartoon Saloon’s most “normal” film, but, stuffed with visual elan and powered by good nature, it confirms the studio’s desire to stretch in hitherto unexplored directions. In cinemas this weekend. On your Netflix box from next week.

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke, a contributor to The Irish Times, is Chief Film Correspondent and a regular columnist