Netflix has become a haven for the type of animated films the major studios have started shying away from, either because of complex themes or offbeat styles of animation. That willingness to experiment is one of the streaming platform's best qualities. Their latest release, My Father's Dragon, is very mainstream in its storytelling, yet is done in a traditional, if stylized, two-dimensional style that would make it a risky bet theatrically. Families willing to press play at home, however, will find themselves enchanted by the tale, both emotionally and visually.
The story follows a young boy named Elmer (voiced by Jacob Tremblay) who moves to the big city of Nevergreen with his single mother, Dela (Golshifteh Farahani). They're dirt poor, living in a dingy apartment managed by cranky landlady Mrs. McLaren (Rita Moreno). After becoming frustrated and running away from home, Elmer meets a talking cat named, appropriately, Cat (Whoopi Goldberg). She enlists his help in an important mission. Nearby Wild Island is rapidly sinking, putting all its animal inhabitants in peril. If Elmer can rescue a dragon that exists on that island, they might be able to find a way to reverse the sinking.
Elmer hops on the back of a whale, Soda (Judy Greer), who takes him to Wild Island. There, he finds dragon Boris (Gaten Matarazzo) being held captive by the island's gorilla leader, Saiwa (Ian McShane). He's literally tied to the land mass, forced to keep it afloat by intermittently flying and lifting it up a bit. Elmer has multiple challenges in completing his mission. Saiwa doesn't want Boris rescued, fearing any change that might make Wild Island's predicament even worse. The dragon is also surprisingly timid, having not yet figured out how to maximize his powers.
My Father's Dragon fits squarely into the "journey" format. Elmer goes on a voyage, encountering a series of dangers along the way, from hostile primates, to a weird lizard creature with multiple eyes, to getting trapped in a pit with an angry rhino. Even if the formula is overused in family fare, the originality of the obstacles freshens it up. The idea of a slowly sinking island provides ticking clock suspense, as does the constant threat from Saiwa. Other scenes have a more humorous touch to balance out the frequent danger. Boris, in particular, earns laughs with his goofy demeanor.
Inside everything is a theme about courage. Boris is initially a frightened little creature. Through his time with Elmer, he has to face all his fears and find the bravery in himself. The boy must do something similar, learning to accept that his new life circumstances can be viewed as an adventure rather than as a tragedy. Kid viewers will identify with the characters, perhaps finding inspiration from their growth. Adults will appreciate a story that finds time for a touch of depth amid the action.
The one factor that limits My Father's Dragon is almost not even its fault. This isn't the first animated movie about a dragon to come along. We've already seen three How to Train Your Dragon pictures, plus Disney's superlative Raya and the Last Dragon. Because of that, the film feels a little like old hat right out of the gate. With recent animated fare like Turning Red and Soul trying to show new things, it's tough to shake a slight "been there, done that" sensation.
Gorgeous animation and excellent vocal performances help compensate for that issue, though. My Father's Dragon may not break new ground, but it's still worthwhile entertainment for the whole family.
out of four
My Father's Dragon is rated PG for some peril. The running time is 1 hour and 39 minutes.