Netflix's My Father's Dragon turns a bizarre book into a beautiful movie

Netflix’s My Father’s Dragon turns a bizarre book into a beautiful movie

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This review was published in conjunction with the film’s premiere at the 2022 BFI London Film Festival. My father’s dragon will be released on Netflix in November.

My father’s dragon is one of those classic children’s books that seems to come straight from the subconscious. For kids, it probably feels comforting and full of wonder, but when you come to it as an adult – as I did recently when I read it to my 5-year-old after a friend gave us a copy – it just feels overwhelmingly strange. (Actually, my kid thought it was weird too.) Written by Ruth Stiles Gannett in 1948, it tells the story of a young boy who, after a disagreement with his mother, runs off to Wild Island, where he must outwit some tragicomic talking animals. . to rescue the candy-striped young dragon they’ve enslaved.

Netflix’s new animated film adaptation, created by the great Irish studio Cartoon Saloon (song of the sea, Wolfwalkers), keeps that top-level plot summary, some of the characters, and Boris’s indelible design (as illustrated by the author’s stepmother, Ruth Chrisman Gannett). Boris is plump and puppy-like, striped in blue and yellow, with floppy ears and small golden wings. Aside from that, the film rejects almost everything else. Director Nora Twomey (the breadwinner, The Secret of Kells) and screenwriter Meg LeFauve (Pixar’s Inside out) have rebuilt the fragmented, surreal little parable of the Gannetts into something more like a conventionally structured children’s film, but they’ve also made it more exciting and resonant. It’s a beautiful movie.

In this version, the boy, Elmer (Jacob Tremblay) – who, we understand, will grow up to be the father of the invisible, elderly narrator (Mary Kay Place) – leads a happy life in a small town with his single mother (Golshifteh). Farahani), who runs a thriving convenience store that caters to everyone’s needs. Then there will be difficult times. (Twomey makes the transition clear by dropping a bright tangerine from an overstuffed box to the floor, where it rolls and evaporates—a wonderfully subdued, eloquent gesture.) Boy and mother move into a run-down boarding house in a bustling industrial city, where he struggles to adapt to their uprooted, impoverished new circumstances. After Elmer’s mother chases a stray cat, he runs after it, into the bowels of the city. Passing through a narrow crevice, he enters a fanciful new reality where the cat talks (with Whoopi Goldberg’s mischievous purr) and leads him to the adventure on the back of an excitable baby whale.

Image: Netflix

This new frame bases the story on a psychological reality the book never had, while also honoring its mid-century American origins. The elaborate ideas of Twomey and LeFauve don’t stop there. In the book, the animals of Wild Island are vain and lazy, and when the dragon falls from the sky, they catch it and put it to work as an air taxi, flying over a river that they don’t bother crossing over. swimming or walking around. The film’s Wild Island is a more complicated, metaphorical and morally ambivalent place.

This island, dome-shaped and foreboding, is constantly sinking into the sea. The animals, desperate to survive, have captured Boris (Gaten Matarazzo) because he is powerful enough, when attached to the rock of the island itself, to pull the entire landmass out of the water. The more he pulls, the more he sinks, but Saiwa the gorilla (Ian McShane), the authoritative, caring, but short-sighted leader of the animals, has no other ideas left. There are also mysteries: a gaping cave of bright white fire at the top of the island, the legend of an omniscient tortoise somewhere in its heart, and crude hieroglyphs of a fire-breathing “after dragon” Boris longs to be. The dragon and the island seem to have something to do with each other, but what?

Unlike the book, which saves the boy-dragon encounter to the end, Twomey and LeFauve waste no time bringing them together. Elmer and Boris explore the island together and encounter a rhinoceros trapped with her baby, a campy crocodile and his offspring, some wild but cute roly-poly tigers and a group of angry globular hamsters. The animals are played for laughter and pathos by a great cast that includes such treasures as Dianne Wiest, Judy Greer, Chris O’Dowd and Alan Cumming. McShane, his beautifully rich voice marinated in anger and worry, is scene-stealing like the gorilla with the weight of the entire island on his shoulders.

Elmer the boy and Boris the dragon look at each other around a tree trunk

Image: Netflix

Tremblay and Matarazzo come to terms with the resourceful, serious boy and the foolish, hopeful dragon. As is so often the case in these kinds of stories, the child and his wonderful companion are two sides of the same coin: mature and immature, narrow-minded and outspoken, ego and id. Of course they will help each other overcome fears, accept new realities and move on. That’s the part of the movie that feels most formal. But it’s still moving, especially in the context of Elmer’s “real” life in the city, and where he’s fleeing. But what sticks the longest after the credits have appeared is the social allegory of the island’s animals, drowning not out of ignorance or laziness, but because they don’t understand how to save themselves and are willing to take that burden on someone else. to shove.

Fans of Cartoon Saloon will assume this goes without saying, but for the uninitiated: My father’s dragon is beautiful. It is 2D animation, illustrated in an economical yet expressive style. It has a cleaner, less obviously hand-drawn look than untamed Wolfwalkers, but Twomey’s keen sense of scale and her simple, striking compositions create a powerful emotional geography for the story and a surprisingly epic, catastrophic canvas for the action. This is a director and studio at the forefront of their craft, with the confidence to take a beloved classic and turn it into something bigger and deeper.

My father’s dragon debuts on Netflix on November 11.

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