A beloved children’s novel is turned into a charming animation in My Father’s Dragon, which is world premiering at the BFI London Film Festival. Oscar-nominated director Nora Twomey (The Breadwinner) helms a story of childhood friendship based on the 1948 novel by Ruth Stiles Gannett, with animation from Cartoon Saloon (The Secret of Kells, Song of the Sea, Wolfwalkers) and a screenplay by Meg LeFauve (Inside Out). It’s a sweet adventure with appeal for young kids and a starry voice cast including Jacob Tremblay as hero Elmer, and – in one of the film’s more amusing moments – Whoopi Goldberg as a cat.
In the opening scenes, a narrator (Mary Kay Place) introduces her father, Elmer, who had a magical experience some time ago. We meet Elmer when his mother (Golshifteh Farahani) is running a modest but successful retail business, involving her son in the day-to-day workings of the store. When they fall on hard times, they’re obliged to move to a dodgy apartment in the city, owned by a no-nonsense landlady, Mrs McClaren (a funny Rita Moreno). She wants the rent every Tuesday, has heard all the sob stories in the book, and thinks pets are even worse than children. But a stray cat leads Elmer into a whole new world, Wild Island, where he falls in with a young dragon called Boris (Gaten Matarazzo) and tries to evade a scheming gorilla called Saiwa (Ian McShane).
The relationship between Elmer and Boris forms the emotional backbone of the film, as Elmer grapples with the prospect that dragons aren’t always exactly like the fire-breathers of the story books, and uses his wits to get them out of trouble. It’s a cute bond that’s enlivened when the pair meet other characters, such as a kindly rhino (Dianne Wiest) and her child. Other characters are voiced by actors including Chris O’Dowd, Judy Greer, Alan Cumming, Leighton Meester, Adam Brody and Charlyne Yi.
Like many a family story, the fantastical adventure features some characters that echo Elmer’s real life, and there are also parallels with anime films (there is a 1997 Japanese animation based on the same novel). But this Netflix release has its own distinctive style, and should entertain youngsters who, like Elmer, are both in search of adventure and trying to make sense of the adult world.