Wednesday, November 16, 2022

Irish Movies in Ireland: My Father's Dragon

I'm on a not-particularly-scheduled vacation in Dublin right now - I basically saw I had to use some time up before the end of the year, knew I couldn't use Thanksgiving to extend it a little more if I wanted to go extra-far, and figured I didn't want to screw around too much with having to navigate in a land where English isn't the de facto first language - Gaelic may be listed first on some signs, but there's a lot of English in the air.

Anyway, as I tend to do, I spent most of Thursday walking about, in this case near Dublin Castle - not exactly the stone edifice that word conjures up, but impressive and noteworthy all the same. It being November and surprisingly far north - climate-wise, it always blows my mind that Dublin and London are not just north of Boston, but Montreal! - it was soon dark, so I popped "movie theaters" into my phone, saw that the Irish Film Institute was nearby, and had my eyebrows go up at this:

I don't know if My Father's Dragon got any theatrical release in the U.S. at all, or if they just couldn't find a screen in the Boston area, but, hey, I like Cartoon Saloon a lot and I had already been mentally composing at least one "Irish movies in Ireland" post for the blog. So, nifty!

The IFI itself is kind of tucked away on the street; the lobby is down a passageway, past a little shop nook that sells discs and (maybe) film books. The concession stand is smaller than the box office, labeled as a café stand with seats around the circular lobby to the point that I wondered if this was a "no snacks in the theater" type of place, especially considering that there was a fairly bustling restaurant/bar area off the lobby. Maybe that was just the way boutique houses work in this city.

(I could, in fact, bring my chocolate chip cookie and Coca-Cola upstairs to the theater)

I wish there were more places with this sort of vibe around Boston; the closest thing is probably the ice cream parlor at the Arlington Capitol or when the Studio in Belmont was sort of tied in with the burrito place next door (or, I guess, the bar areas that have infested the local multiplexes). I don't think it's really a planned part of the Coolidge's expansion, although they'd maybe be the best fit. I could imagine the Brattle taking over one of the other spaces in the building for something like that, but it would also involve imagining the rents in Harvard Square being less crazy than they are (this also goes for imagining something like that being done with the old Harvard Square Cinema space, still vacant with rumors of a development including a two-screener in the basement seven years after it closed). It feels like we could have something like this, where film-lovers would have a sort of dedicated space to browse and hang out before and after a screening, but the right opening is hard to find.

My Father's Dragon

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 10 November 2022 in Irish Film Archive #2 (first-run, DCP)

Between their Irish folklore series and The Breadwinner, Kilkanney's Cartoon Saloon has staked out an enviable place in the animation landscape - their films are instantly recognizable, and while often built with younger audiences in mind, they have generally been mature enough to appeal to adults without having to plant "aren't we clever for going over kids' heads" bits. They've been so good that My Father's Dragon being a tick below that is noticeable, if not truly disappointing: The movie is fine; and kids should enjoy it, but it may not click in quite the same way for their parents.

It initially introduces the audience to Elmer (voice of Jacob Tremblay), a bright and energetic kid who knows where to find anything in the small-town market run by his mother Dela (voice of Golshifteh Farahani), although that place can't quite last, and the pair are soon moving to "Nevergreen City", where Dela is having a hard time finding work and landlady Mrs. McClaren (voice of Rita Moreno) isn't exactly pleased to find she brought a kid with her. Other things go wrong - a cat follows Elmer home despite Mrs. McClaren's no-pets rule, he rubs the other kids who are down-and-out the wrong way, and Dela has to spend the money they were saving to re-open the store. That's how he ends up alone by the docks, told that if he can rescue a dragon, surely he could make some money selling pictures and rides and such. But when a bubbly whale named Soda (voice of Judy Greer) gets him to the island, things turn complicated: Boris (voice of Gaten Matarazzo) is just a kid dragon himself, tied to the island by orangutan Saiwa (voice of Ian McShane) to keep it from sinking by flying up.

The script by Meg LaFauve (based on Ruth Stiles Gannett's children's book) is not especially complicated, and neither she nor director Nora Twomey burdens it with more than needs to be there. They could have set up parallels between the island and the mainland, perhaps re-using voice actors or otherwise doing more to hint that the island is an imaginary place where Elmer can work through what's really eating him, beyond there being tangerines in both places. This happens and that happens, with Elmer and Boris not exactly moving in a straight line but close enough that kids can follow them. The film winds up introducing a lot of characters that viewers may figure would be more important, and there's not a lot of reason for this to be "My Father's Dragon" rather than "Elmer's Dragon", there's no flashing back or forward. The filmmakers aren't putting in complicated structure for kids who won't consciously notice it but will hopefully just be involved in the moment. That's fine, as is the moment or two when the film stops so Elmer can state exactly what he's learning; it does the job for the main audience.

So does the voice acting, with Jacob Tremblay and Gaten Matarazzo apparently recording together and capturing the right vibe where Matarazzo's Boris is almost perfectly sweet, though scared, with Tremblay's Elmer often just selfish enough to frustrate the viewers without losing them. There are a lot of enjoyable character actors around them, from Golshifteh Farahani being note-perfect with Dela's faltering optimism to how Ian McShane and Chris O'Dowd are sort of frightening in their pragmatism, with folks like Alan Cumming, Dianne Wiest, Jackie Earle Haley, and Rita Moreno in between. Special props go to Whoopi Goldberg and Judy Greer, whose sly cat and happy whale are opposites woh work quite well together.

And, almost needless to say, the film is gorgeous, animated in classic style, with character designs that seem coloring-book-ready and which allow a lot of expression without distortion. There's a house style that makes Cartoon Saloon productions recognizable but seldom repetitive, especially the backgrounds that feel busy without quite being dizzying, the distinct color schemes for the village, city, and island. There are big, clear shapes, and rather than overwhelm the audience at crucial moments, Twomey will throw away perspective or reduce action to silhouettes to make sure what's actually important gets the most full, impactful emphasis.

That simplification, both in story and style, makes me wonder if the studio was animating with knowledge that this was heading for Netflix with very little time on the big screen. My Father's Dragon feels streaming-scale rather than grandly cinematic - fine enough for kids, but not as thrilling as this group's best work.

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