The latest animated Netflix Original, My Father’s Dragon, is now streaming, but should you give it a watch?
Like its evolution as a live-action movie studio, Netflix took a few years to develop as a serious competitor in the animated feature film landscape.
It wasn’t until their release of 2019’s holiday hit Klaus that garnered them the audience & critical success that they needed to even dream of being honored among the perennial powerhouses of Disney/Pixar, Leika, & Studio Ghibli.
Since then, Netflix has had multiple films nominated for Best Animated Feature at the Oscars and has created projects with some of the best directors, animators, & artists in the business. Some examples include long-time Disney animator Glen Keane receiving awards consideration for his film Over The Moon and, just last year, The Mitchells vs. the Machines garnered them an Oscar nomination for producers Phil Lord & Christopher Miller (Into The Spiderverse, The Lego Movie) and directors Mike Rianda & Jeff Rowe (Gravity Falls).
This year, Netflix has continued the trend of well-regarded films by heralded animation creators with Big Hero 6 director Chris Williams’ The Sea Beast and Coraline director Henry Selick’s Wendell & Wild. But maybe their biggest collaboration to date is their latest release, My Father’s Dragon, a co-production with 5-time Oscar-nominated studio Cartoon Saloon (Wolfwalkers, The Secret of Kells) directed by their co-founder Nora Twomey. Twomey’s last 2 films for the studio, The Breadwinner & The Secret of Kells (co-directed), have produced Oscar nominations.
While the most notable Cartoon Saloon films have been derived from mystical Irish Folklore or distinct cultural backdrops, such as The Breadwinner’s Taliban-controlled Kabul, this new film is vaguer in its roots & locales.
Adapted from the 1948 children’s novel by Ruth Stiles Gannett, the story centers around young Elmer Elevator and his mother, Dela. They lose everything, including Dela’s general store, during what feels like the Great Depression era.
Forced to leave their more idyllic small town and struggling to cope with their move to the gloomy & gray big city of Nevergreen, Elmer runs away in search of solutions to his family’s mounting problems. Naturally, a talking stray cat sets Elmer’s sights on Wild Island and a young dragon who waits to be rescued. Elmer believes that this dragon could be the remedy he has been searching for and sets out on the adventure of a lifetime.
The story feels familiar in basic structure to the Maurice Sendak classic “Where The Wild Things Are”. Much like Max in “Wild Things”, Elmer strikes out after a contentious moment occurs with his parent as his anger & frustration over his current circumstances could not be contained. They both set out to an island full of wild animals to change their lives and both learn lessons on how to deal with their emotions & the ever-changing, harsh realities of life. For good measure, Elmer even comes home to a warm meal after setting off on his adventure.
What separates the two stories is that My Father’s Dragon utilizes the friendship & mythical quest with the dragon itself as a rite of passage for Elmer as well. Teamwork, belief in yourself & others, and realizing you don’t have all the answers is a simple, yet effective message that resonates with the younger audiences the film is intended for, as well as, a gentle reminder to the adults in the room.
As always with Cartoon Saloon, you are treated to incredible yet almost subtle animation, especially when compared to the 3D animated competitors that largely dominate the landscape. Their unique spin on the classic 2D form that has been used for all of their previous films is on display. Still, they riff on that with a more childlike design of Elmer and Boris the Dragon that feel more accessible and nod to the original art from Gannett’s source material. We even get treated to a “Free Willy” type breakout from Boris towards the end of the film, and you can’t get more childlike exuberance than that.
Fans of Cartoon Saloon’s previous work, myself included, might find fault in the simplicity of its story and the less defined nature of its settings. If you fell in love with the Irish folklore or the environment of war-torn regions, this film may seem bland to your palette. However, the familiarity of the designs and the heart behind its messaging should be enough to satiate most of their devotees.
Overall, My Father’s Dragon is Cartoon Saloon’s most mainstream film for all of the trappings AND benefits of the term.
Less bold but potentially more accessible can be a blessing or a curse depending on your age and devotion to the studio’s past. Personally, I find the film to be a successful collaboration with a large platform like Netflix and packed with just enough heart to bring tears to this author’s eyes during its climactic moments.
While I think they peaked with Wolfwalkers, this hits just the right notes, or whistle tunes, to work.
You should watch My Father’s Dragon on Netflix If You Like
- Where The Wild Things Are
- Pete’s Dragon
- The Good Dinosaur
MVP of My Father’s Dragon on Netflix
The voice of Jacob Trembley as Elmer.
After successful work in the animated children’s film genre last year on Pixar’s Luca, Trembley brings a level of earnestness and tenderness in his voice work for Elmer.
PLAY, PAUSE, OR STOP?
PLAY. For its intended age level, My Father’s Dragon will delight audiences with its lush colors & striking character designs while focusing on the core tenets of friendship & overcoming fear.