My Father’s Dragon review: Ambitious and uplifting
James R | On 10, Oct 2022
Director: Nora Twomey
Cast: Jacob Tremblay, Gaten Matarazzo, Ian McShane, Golshifteh Farahani
“Why is everything so hard?” asks Elmer (Jacob Tremblay) in My Father’s Dragon. He’s a 10-year-old boy struggling to cope with moving to a smoky city with his mum, Dela (Golshifteh Farahani), after their grocery shop goes bankrupt. In a leaky apartment with no friends and a stressed parent, it’s no wonder that he’s excited by the chance to escape to a magical island and rescue a real life fire-breathing dragon who might be able to solve all their problems. That’s when things really start to get difficult.
While the 1948 kids novel by Ruth Stiles Gannett feels a world away from the Celtic folklore of Wolfwalkers, Song of the Sea and The Secret of Kells, the story’s themes of a child grappling with the realities of grown-up life are pure Cartoon Saloon. Director Nora Twomey builds on her thoughtful debut, The Breadwinner, to conjure up a similar blend of grounded realism and magical escapism.
The handdrawn visuals immediately make sure Wild Island is a world away from the city of Nevergreen, the greys, blues and grimy greens – all harsh angles and engulfing scale – giving way to gorgeous colours, curving landscapes and vividly unusual trees.
But where My Father’s Dragon truly flies is in the way that it avoids diving into fantasy with carefree joy; Wild Island is a wondrous place, but also a troubled one. The island, we swiftly learn, is sinking – and silverback Saiwa (Ian McShane) has ensnared the dragon of the film’s title to keep lifting it up in the air. But the dragon is far from the spectacular beast that Elmer was hoping to meet: he’s called Boris (Gaten Matarazzo), can’t breathe fire and is essentially a child. A myth that refers to Boris getting his fire and saving the island ultimately paves the way for a quest that involves powerful items and puzzle-solving, as well as coming of age.
That framework is the ideal balance of simplicity and complexity, walking the audience step by step through a deceptively intricate and timely world. The fact that Elmer is at the island in the first place because he wants to help his mum is no coincidence; this is a tale about finding the line between knowing when to help someone and when to let others help you.
Golshifteh Farahani’s heartfelt performance as Dela, forever trying to shelter her son from the harsh challenges of life, has a darker echo in the growling echo of Saiwa, who does what he can to stop the island from descending into panic and fear, even if it’s the wrong thing. There’s no clear-cut morality here, from the island inhabitants – including timid rhino Iris (Dianne Wiest) and selfish macaque Kwan (Chris O’Dowd) – all believing what they’re told by their leader out of desperation to Dela’s grumpy landlady Mrs McClaren (Rita Moreno), who has her own pressures to worry about.
In the middle of them all, Jacob Tremblay’s earnest Elmer and Gaten Matazzaro’s goofy Boris are a wonderfully sweet pair, sparking genuine chemistry as they begin to trust each other. But underneath their amusing exchanges is a beautifully nuanced dissection of learning when to help someone else carry their burden versus taking it on yourself. One tear-inducing argument on a cliff edge has all the emotional wallop of Song of the Sea’s exploration of grief but without losing the sock puppet-like charm of its titular cuddly critter.
The script retains the book’s framework of having an unseen narrator (Mary Kay Place) recount her memories of her father, which is perhaps one complication too far. But while it takes some time for this adventure to get in the air, that only adds more weight to its uplifting ambition. Once its hero has earned its wings, My Father’s Dragon soars.
This review was originally published during the 2022 London Film Festival.