A warm, vibrant, and emphatically imaginative animated film that’s about the emotions we cannot see underneath the surface.
We review the Netflix film My Father’s Dragon, which does not contain spoilers.
My Father’s Dragon is based on the 1948 illustrated children’s novel. Written by Ruth Stiles, it spawned a trilogy and is considered a seminal work in illustrated children’s literature. The film was adapted by Irish filmmaker Nora Twomey (The Breadwinner) and Inside Out scribe Meg LeFauve. With this kind of pedigree, it’s hard not to imagine viewers are in for a beautiful treat. And they received a warm, vibrant, and empathetically imaginative animated film that rivals the source material.
The story follows Elmer (Room’s Jacob Tremblay), a young boy whose family has fallen on challenging times. Elmer’s mother (The Patience Stone’s Golshifteh Farahani) had a thriving grocery store in the small village. However, they are forced to close the business as time goes on. All that is left is Elmer’s fond memory of vibrant orange tangerines that his mother used to sell, his favorite. Though always the optimist, Elmer encourages her to give the big city a shot and start a store like they used to have. However, Elmer’s mother cannot find work. They live in a rundown apartment, where even she cannot haggle down prices, for which she is renowned. After a night of stress and being unable to find work, she yells at Elmer, and he runs off into the city.
From there, he runs into a talking cat (Whoopi Goldberg), who leads Elmer to the mysterious Wild Island. He receives help from a bubbly while aptly named Soda (voiced by Judy Greer). Elmer there attempts to rescue an adorable dragon, Boris (Stranger Things‘ Gaten Matarazzo), who is keeping the Island from sinking. Elmer unhooks Boris, and to the chagrin of the Island’s leader, a gorilla named Saiwa (the great Ian McShane). With a broken wing, they set out to find a tortoise Aratuah. Why? They will tell Boris how to become an ever dragon, complicated by his broken wing and fear of water and fire. In return, Boris will help Elmer raise enough money so his family can start another family store.
My Father’s Dragon can be heartwarming and life-affirming while generating a fair amount of suspense for an animated children’s film. There is so much to chew on, with emotions running beneath the surface of a broken family and home that may entirely fall apart at any moment. If you think of some of the great films that have children enter worlds to work through trauma, which can range from physical pain to even the emotional toll of childhood abandonment, this works, just not on the same elevated level.
The film’s plot invokes an easy comparison to John Gottman’s therapist tool, The Angry Iceberg. While this was invented well after the source material, the metaphor is obvious. My Father’s Dragon is about the emotions happening beneath the surface with Elmer and his mother. The Island represents their lives. The Island is sinking because of emotions like sadness, loneliness, being overwhelmed, stress, anxiety, and even contempt. You can spot them when you look back through My Father’s Dragon’s colorful emotional jigsaw puzzle.
And the solution to free the Island from sinking represents coming to terms with those unresolved issues that can either sink or, in those cases, free Elmer. Animated family films like My Father’s Dragon don’t come along often. With an impressive voice cast, beautiful 2-D animation, and well-intentioned themes that ring true, take the adorable ride together soon with your family.
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