Wednesday 16 November 2022

On demand: "My Father's Dragon"

Advance word posited that
My Father's Dragon was the jolliest animation yet from Cartoon Saloon, the Irish artisans who previously blessed us with The Book of Kells, Song of the Sea and Wolfwalkers. The description is not entirely inaccurate, but this big-screen treatment of a 1948 picture-book by Ruth Stiles Gannett opens with a brisk sketch of financial privation likely to chime with anyone using Netflix as a babysitter during the winter cost-of-living crisis. Removed to poky digs in a cold, wet, anonymous city after the failure of his single mother's grocery business, young Elmer (voiced by Room's Jacob Tremblay) finds a form of escape and uplift with the aid of a sardonic talking cat (Whoopi Goldberg) and then - after a voyage by sea to a tropical island - the cuddly firebreather of the title. What follows thereafter is a little less organic - and more generic - than what's come before; it may be what happens when a studio who've hitherto been left to their own devices enters into partnership with a streaming giant and finds itself competing for eyeballs with the collected might of Disney and Disney+. To get to this fantasy island, Elmer hops aboard a chatty whale (Judy Greer) who could have swum straight out of the Finding Nemo universe, and once in place, he's soon surrounded by a furry menagerie with illustrious vowels, chief among them a gorilla with the voice of TV's Lovejoy. (Doubtless because he, too, has been brought to speaking life by Ian McShane.) It's a nice gag that the reportedly fearsome dragon, Boris, should turn out to be a pushover in sweater stripes; he resembles Barney the dinosaur facially, proves terrified of fire, and broadly comports himself like a draught excluder. I foresee a range of plush toys coming down the production line: Boris makes even Cressida Cowell's eminently cuddly Toothless seem like Jeffrey Dahmer.

All the same, it's rather a pity that the screenplay (by Meg LeFauve, one of the megabrains behind Inside Out) should default to quest-narrative standard: the film is essentially a lively walk through the jungle in search of life lessons. The source material may have been dusted down now because of its vision of a child handed the unenviable responsibility of warding off disastrous ecological collapse; fleeing the mainland with the world already weighing heavy on his shoulders, Elmer winds up having to play structural engineer with Boris so as to try and prevent the island from sinking into the sea. Again, it's not Madagascar-jolly, exactly: the jolliness is mixed in with a certain degree of pedagogy. Part of me actually itched to get off the island, which in 2022 feels like a pretty stock if not archetypal location for an animated children's film, and back to that city, which feels richer in narrative possibility and sources of potential tension. (We may do yet: Gannett's book was the first in a series, and I'm eager to see how Boris tests the no-pets rule in Elmer's apartment building.) Still, at every stage, in every corner, there is undeniable art in the presentation. As in her earlier work under the auspices of Cartoon Saloon, director Nora Twomey draws big, pleasing effects from what look comparatively simple, cut-out-and-keep character designs; there's none of the clutter, gratuitous flashiness or draining overcomplication that have dogged Pixar's digimations in recent years. The relief and charm My Father's Dragon inspires lies in encountering an animation that looks (skilfully) handturned rather than 3D printed, that finds some equivalent in its method to Aardman's fingerprints-in-the-plasticine approach. Ruth Stiles Gannett is still with us, at the grand old age of 99: if she sees Twomey's film, and you hope she does, she'll surely observe that her creations have been treated with the utmost care and delicacy.

My Father's Dragon is now streaming on Netflix.

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