“My Father’s Dragon,” the latest addition to the animation world’s boy-and-befriended-animal-giant subgenre that was a staple of my childhood, is the lovechild between “The Good Dinosaur” and “How to Train Your Dragon.” Unfortunately for Irish studio Cartoon Saloon, the creators of five Oscar-nominated films, their focus on giving the film a triumphant outcome and little else renders most of the movie soulless.
The film is based on a children’s book of the same name by Ruth Stiles Gannett, in which Boris (Gaten Matarazzo, “Honor Society”), a dragon with gaudy blue-and-yellow stripes, is saved from an island by Elmer Elevator (Jacob Tremblay, “Luca”), an idealistic young boy who lets his imagination lead the way. These characters are the only part of the book present in the film. The other story elements center the film’s modern retelling on the bond between Elmer and Boris, as opposed to the book’s story, which follows Elmer on a solo adventure.
Prophesied to save an island from sinking, Boris was taken by the island’s gorilla leader, Saiwa (Ian McShane, “John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum”). Saiwa tied Boris to the island, hoping that Boris would lift it up when he flew. Meanwhile, Elmer and his mother are suffering financially, and he wishes to escape the troubles of his daily life. He meets a cat (Whoopi Goldberg, “Till”) who tells him that Boris could help if Elmer frees him. Elmer frees Boris temporarily, and together they embark on an adventure to find a better prevention method for island sinkage while attempting to escape the clutches of Saiwa and the other animals on the island, who don’t initially understand their plan.
For the most part, Meg LeFauve’s (“Inside Out”) screenplay infuses more joy into the original story. Upon revisiting the novel, while I see why my younger self was enthralled by the adventure, it lacks warmth. The book is a step-by-step recap of Elmer’s journey to save Boris, who only appears in the last three pages. The film brings Elmer and Boris together before they meet the island animals, rather than having Elmer encounter them alone. The animals’ motivations for wanting Boris on the island are more rational in the film, too — Boris is prophesied to save the island, as opposed to merely being forced there. Compared to the book, the film also brings in valuable life lessons in addition to its adventure. Elmer is determined to lead Boris to victory and puts on a front to show that he’s assured in his duties, but ultimately, he reveals that he’s more terrified than anyone. Boris accepts that fear is normal but steps out of his comfort zone to independently complete the final challenge on their quest. By admitting their weaknesses and letting their mutual strengths guide one another, the two friends succeed in the end.
Not everything can feature a well-developed universe like that of “Inside Out,” and LeFauve misses the mark on this one. The beauty of “Inside Out”’s worldbuilding — in my opinion, the best world that Disney-Pixar has ever built — is nowhere to be found in “My Father’s Dragon.” There’s no proper backstory to explain the reason for any of the magical elements, making the fantasy aspect of the world seem hollow. LeFauve’s previous works are no stranger to talking animals and fictional species, but the island’s drowning and the force keeping it down are never explained. Boris is supposed to become an “After Dragon” — a dragon prophesied to have huge wings and fire breath — after he passes his test by saving the island, but the lore behind this plot point is hardly expanded upon. The legend of the know-all tortoise, Aratuah, who is supposed to tell Elmer and Boris how to fix the island, sees no development beyond being a myth. Both Aratuah and the idea of “After Dragons” are only there to give the illusion that there is actually substance to the adventure plot, and LeFauve glosses over the possibility of ever developing these ideas in favor of getting to the victorious ending as quickly as possible.
The film wields minor characters as plot devices with little to no development, only including expository introductions and subsequent resolutions in their one-dimensional storylines. Kwan (Chris O’Dowd, “The Starling”), one of the animals who follows Saiwa, thinks constantly about self-preservation and shows a blatant disregard for animals who fall into the water when the island begins to drown. But this characterization doesn’t amount to anything. Kwan is not the story’s villain; he leaves the island, and that’s it. There are street performers at the beginning of the film, children who compete with Elmer for money from passersby. They dislike Elmer, and Elmer dislikes them. Before their antagonism can hold any weight, they disappear from the storyline until it’s revealed that Elmer has befriended them, making their antagonistic introduction pointless. While animated films intended for children are meant to be uplifting, the film doesn’t take up any opportunities to create and resolve conflict, making the viewing experience boring.
Most strikingly, Elmer’s backstory is tossed out immediately after it’s introduced. He and his mom are struggling due to a recession. Their shop is foreclosed, and they relocate to a new city. The film tells us Elmer has a dream to reopen the shop in a new location, but this theme never returns. The rest of the film revolves around Elmer and Boris’s friendship. Elmer is consistently characterized as a hopeful dreamer, but the lack of a proper return to his background makes him seem like just another unoriginal children’s movie character.
I wanted to like this movie. There’s nothing more heartwarming than watching two unlikely friends take on the world together. But when the script doesn’t make room for much more than a surface-level adventure tale, the viewer is left rethinking whether a dragon can truly be a man’s best friend.
Daily Arts Writer Kristen Su can be reached at [email protected].