Lions and tigers and dragons, oh my! My Father’s Dragon, inspired by the 1948 children’s novel of the same name by Ruth Stiles Gannett, illustrated by Ruth Chrisman Gannett, is now streaming on Netflix. The 2D-animated fantasy film stars Jacob Tremblay (Luca; Wonder) as Elmer Elevator and Gaten Matarazzo (Stranger Things) as Boris the Dragon. The film was originally set for a 2021 premiere on Netflix, but was pushed to November 11, 2022.
The movie, which has a runtime of 103 minutes, was co-produced by Netflix Animation, Mockingbird Pictures, and Cartoon Saloon and directed by Nora Twomey (The Breadwinner) with a screenplay by Meg LeFauve (Inside Out). It was executive produced by Ruth Coady, Meg LeFauve, Alan Moloney, and Gerry Shirren; and produced by Bonnie Curtis, Julie Lynn, Tomm Moore, and Paul Young. The cast features some recognizable names such as Judy Greer (Archer) as Soda, Charlyne Yi (Steven Universe) as Magda, Leighton Meester (Gossip Girl) as Sasha, Mary Kay Place (Girl, Interrupted) as the narrator, Golshifteh Farahani (Extraction) as Dela Elevator, Elmer’s mother, and Whoopi Goldberg (Sister Act) as Cat.
An unseen older woman (Place) narrates the story of her father, Elmer Elevator (Tremblay), as a boy. He and his mother (Farahani) move to a new town, having been forced to close their candy shop due to the number of townspeople moving away, but the family soon struggles to make ends meet in their new town. Among the hardships, Elmer befriends a cat (Goldberg) but is scolded by his mother for being too kind to a stray. Running away to the docks, the cat begins to talk to him, telling of an island with a dragon (Matarazzo) that can help him save his family. With the help of a whale named Soda (Greer), Elmer is transported to Wild Island, a magical island that hosts an array of whimsical inhabitants. There he discovers that the dragon, Boris, is held captive and must keep the island from sinking. Elmer and Boris then decide to make an agreement to help the other out; Boris will help Elmer obtain enough money to buy a new store and Elmer will help Boris go free once finished.
Saying she was “hooked” from the first two pages of Gannett’s book, Twomey knew she wanted to “explore the layers of storytelling” that the book had. “I couldn’t help but read between the lines; what was going on in [the mother’s] life that made a saucer of milk become a tipping point? What must Elmer have felt when he looked into his mother’s face and got a sense of her anger or whatever was behind it?” Twomey said. “Ruth’s books had depth and beauty underneath the drama and imaginative settings, and those first few pages took my heart. The film is not an adaptation of the book but a film inspired by Ruth’s writings. We knew early on that in order to fit 90 minutes of drama for the screen, the plot would need to revolve around Elmer’s emotional needs.”
Ruth, who celebrated her 99th birthday in August, and her daughter, Louise, expressed agreement with that sentiment. “LaFauve’s addition of social emotional content, such as dealing with vulnerability, fear of change, poverty, and being the child of a single parent were a new twist,” Louise said. “It brought the story more up to date to the experience of many children around the world today.
Having had experience with novel-to-screen adaptations, Twomey approached both films a little differently. “My last film was The Breadwinner, based on a novel by Deborah Ellis about a girl growing up in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan at the turn of the millennium,” Twomey told PW. “My Father’s Dragon was a more internal, imaginative space to explore.”
With a colorful cast of characters, it’s no surprise that the film’s voice actors had some genuine laughs in the recording booth, laughs that can be heard in the final version. “When Jacob (Elmer) and Gaten (Boris) first got together in the studio, they stood opposite each other in front of their microphones with headphones, which allowed them to hear each other’s performances really clearly,” Twomey recalled. “Very soon they were making exaggerated mouth noises to gross each other out. I kind of had to just sit back and wait ’till they got it out of their systems. They were laughing at each other a lot but we ended up using a lot of those laughs in the film as they were so genuine.”
Twomey was able to meet Gannett as soon as Netflix greenlit the production. “I went to visit Ruth in the little village of Trumansburg in upstate New York,” she said. “[Gannett] spoke so beautifully about Elmer, his self-sufficiency, his ability to think for himself. She placed such importance on the power of imagination: her own, mine and most importantly that of children.”
And while Gannett and Louise were unable to meet the actors or animation artists, an unlikely coincidence still connected them with one of the actors. “Whoopi bought my mother’s childhood summer home,” Louise recounted, “which later became the full-time residence of her father, Lewis Gannett, and her stepmother, Ruth “Big Ruth” Chrisman Gannett [the illustrator for My Father’s Dragon. This was my mother’s favorite place in the world, where she spent weekends and summers and built a little village in the barn. It is also the place she wrote My Father’s Dragon.”
Gannett and Louise both hope that “children who see the film will enjoy Elmer’s adventure to find and save Boris,” Louise said. “But will also take away a sense of empowerment despite their fears and anxieties, which we all have and try to overcome.” And Twomey hopes that audiences are able to fully immerse themselves in the film. “There are layers to the character’s dramatic arcs if you want to engage with them—not just Elmer and Boris’s but characters like Saiwa, who appears fearsome but is cornered into a pattern of behavior he can’t see a way out of. The whole film is bound together by Elmer’s perspective on his surroundings and his sense of security, or lack of it,” Twomey said. “I hope the film is immersive for the viewer. I believe its rewards repeat viewing, which makes Netflix a good home of it.”