When I was a kid, Disney was the center of the animation world — the most reliable source of wonder and imagination. Later, that center shifted, as Pixar’s storytelling set new standards and their animators revealed that so much more was possible. But then, the subtleties and spiritual resonance of Studio Ghibli won my heart and changed my priorities.

And now? Could moviegoers be so lucky as to watch another studio become the epicenter of animation inspiration?

Animators, animation enthusiasts, and cinephiles around the world know that Cartoon Saloon’s animated features to date — The Secret of Kells, Song of the Sea, The Breadwinner, and Wolfwalkers — have distinguished them as being one of the world’s greatest animation studios, perhaps even making them as important and as influential as Pixar or Studio Ghibli were a decade ago. For me, they’ve become the new mountaintop. Why? Cartoon Saloon films favor substance over style, and yet their style is so extraordinary that it is, in fact, a kind of substance. In other words, their animation is glorious because it is meaningful; the “look” of their films is always worthy of our close attention, because the design reinforces and expands on the films’ themes in imaginative ways.

A boy and his dragon traverse Wild Island. [Image from the Netflix trailer.]
And so, as a great fan of their work, and as a great admirer of Nora Twomey — director of The Breadwinner and co-director of The Secret of Kells — I have greatly anticipated the release of Twomey’s new adaptation of the classic children’s novel My Father’s Dragon.

Nevertheless, I have been bracing for disappointment for the first time — and for good reason.

I flinched when I heard that it would debut on Netflix instead of in theaters. Every Cartoon Saloon feature so far has needed a big screen in order to show off its breathtaking visual complexity, and it was tragic to see their most visually ambitious film of all — 2021’s Wolfwalkers — debut on AppleTV+ instead of in cineplexes around the world. (When I finally saw Wolfwalkers in a one-screening-only theatrical exhibition just a couple of months ago, I had my theory confirmed: The big screen show was a revelation compared to my television screen at home.)

Sadly, it looks like this might become the norm.

Another concern? The source material, a 1948 children’s book by Ruth Stiles Gannett, is whimsical and funny, and has clearly influenced storytellers for generations, but it’s a meandering and episodic tale that lacks a certain gravity. Could Cartoon Saloon storytellers revise it into something resonant? Perhaps. But here they’ve given the adaptation work to Meg LeFauve, whose most significant credit so far is the screenplay for Pixar’s Inside Out (based on a story by Pete Docter and Ronnie Del Carmen). Don’t get me wrong — I love Inside Out. But Pixar storytelling has a very different quality than Cartoon Saloon’s stuff so far, one focused much more on relentless action and adventure, much less on beauty and mystery.

And while I’d still love to see My Father’s Dragon on the big screen, I’m sorry to report that my worries have been well-founded. This is the first film from the Irish animation studio that I wouldn’t rush out to see a second time on any kind of screen. It’s enjoyable, and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to parents looking for new entertainment for their children. But the substance I spoke of earlier — that layered, nuanced narrative complexity that has drawn me back again and again to The Secret of Kells, Song of the Sea, The Breadwinner, and Wolfwalkers, and inspired me to prioritize them as important texts in my classes on art and faith — is lacking here. My Father’s Dragon is a whimsical adventure that will have you fondly remembering Where The Wild Things Are and The Neverending Story. But in its improvisational whimsy, it leans too far and too often into mere silliness for the story to resonate with power, and while a lot happens, I can’t say it coheres into the sort of poetic storytelling that has been the highlight of those four previous films.

Elmer the industrious shop boy. [Image from the Netflix trailer.]
LeFauve’s screenplay takes such artistic license that I would have preferred to see the film described as “loosely based” on Gannett’s novel. The result feels far closer to the perpetual-motion entertainment of B-grade Pixar than the four masterful tapestries that Cartoon Saloon has woven for us before.

The story begins focused on a boy with a single mother. Shopkeeper Dela Elevator (Paterson‘s Golshifteh Farahani) struggles to keep her shop afloat just as she struggles to keep her son Elmer Elevator (Room‘s Jacob Tremblay) ignorant of just how close they are to financial ruin. (We don’t know what happened to Elmer’s father — or why he had the last name Elevator! Those burning questions go unanswered, even though they seem hugely important.) Their friendly small-town community seems kindly enough, but we don’t realize how special it is until things change. Something about the suddenness and severity of Dela’s misfortune might suggest to future viewers that this was “pandemic-era” filmmaking and the storytellers were thinking about relevant hardships. Business dries up fast. They struggle to keep the shop afloat, and Elmer proves resourceful, finding things that can be sold to keep their hopes alive. But it’s not enough.

Elmer’s world crumbles when his mother’s shop closes and they have to start over. [Image from the Netflix trailer.]
So Dela, putting up quite a show of optimism, packs up and gambles on a new start in the metropolis of Nevergreen, where everything is crowded, chaotic, and dangerous. Their new apartment is alarmingly unfurnished, the plumbing seems to have been installed by a prankster, and the scowling landlady is not impressed that Dela has a child in tow. When she impresses upon them that no pets are allowed, well… you can tell where this is going. Sure enough, it takes about five minutes of screen time before the inevitable cat shows up.

We know how this works: In stories like this, home-world details are important in preparing us for the specifics of the fantasy world. We need to understand young Elmer’s trials if we are to make sense of anything that happens to him in Wonderland. The size of the previous paragraph should suggest to you that the film invests a lot of time and attention in establishing Elmer’s home world. In fact, the context and character development in Elmer’s home-world are so beautifully illustrated and efficiently constructed that I found myself reluctant to launch into some kind of Wonderland. Labyrinth makes Sarah’s predicament baby-sitting a child she resents suitably miserable so we’re excited to leave that nursery. But in the busy-ness of Nevergreen, I found enough intrigue that I would have been happy to stay and watch this kid work things out there on his own. I’m confident that he could have.

Instead, Elmer Elevator ends up whisked away against his will — first under the influence of the (talking!) cat (voiced by Whoopi Goldberg), and second on the back of an overly chatty, high-strung whale named Soda, who looks about as mammalian as a dime-store bath toy. Voiced by Judy Greer (whose involvement in anything is often reason enough to buy a ticket), Soda is aptly named; she’s as manic as Pixar’s Dory and much more abrasively cheerful. Fortunately, her role is fleeting, as she zigs to an island full of tangerines (which we can tell will be important) and then zags to Wild Island, where it’s clear the Main Events are about to unfold.

How can anyone find a dragon if they don’t first find a talking cat? [Image from the Netflix trailer.]
Wild Island is not a desert island, but its extravagant colors make it look like… a dessert island, perhaps? Still, it’s hardly an ideal vacation destination. Not only is it overrun with aggressive and unnerving animals, but it tends to start sinking into the sea every so often, and those pesky critters need someone to step up and save them somehow. In this situation, a big white ape named Saiwa (voiced by Ian McShane, so we know he’s the villain) seems to be in charge, having bound a flying dragon named Boris (Stranger Things‘ Gaten Matarazzo) to tethers and basically enslaved him to do the literal Heavy Lifting.

Elmer, quickly convinced that he needs to bring Boris back home to the Mainland in order to score fame and shop-saving fortune, determines to save the poor creature from captivity. But in doing so, is he dooming everyone on Wild Island to drowning? And what’s he to do when his dreams of a magnificent dragon shatter, and he finds himself on the run with a dopey roly-poly whose shape suggests a dog’s squeaky toy and whose stripes look like a toddler’s pajamas?

The ensuing adventures are never less than entertaining, but they’re rarely more than that. Despite Pixar-like histrionics that are merciless in their attempts to make us cry, the movie ends up feeling more like a expensive 90 minutes of baby-sitting for the kids than a meaningful exploration worth revisiting.

Wild Island is not a desert island, but the colors make it look like… a dessert island? [Image from the Netflix trailer.]
One disappointment is that, despite the Cartoon Saloon signature extravagance of colors and shapes weaving intricately like instruments in a magnificent symphony, many of these characters and species seem designed for, as Carlos Aguilar (at Roger Ebert.com) writes, “maximum cuteness.” It looks like the artists were hoping to inspire a wave of merchandising for nurseries: wallpaper, stuffed toys, musical mobiles, pajamas, and more. The strategy might work in appealing to very small children and to pregnant parents eager to spoil their children. But does the movie move us?

Another disappointment: The casting of Matarazzo as the voice of Boris feels like a major miscalculation. The voice doesn’t fit the character design. And as it exaggerates the distinctive quirks of Matarazzo’s familiar Stranger Things voice, it jars me out of any suspension of disbelief every time he speaks. It’s one thing to surprise us with the idea that young dragons are as insecure and as rambunctious as young boys. It’s another thing entirely to make a dragon annoying.

Elmer and Boris contemplate their mutually sinking homes. [Image from the Netflix trailer.]
But that miscasting is an exception. Most of the voices fit their characters perfectly. Hearing Diane Weist’s honey-sweet kindness in the voice of an adorable rhino is something I didn’t know I needed. And I wonder if any children will find themselves wishing their mothers spoke with the sensuality of Golshifteh Farahani. Mary Kay Place seems a born narrator. I’m hoping I can find her reading audiobooks somewhere.

The biggest letdown of all comes at the conclusion, when we finally get back to “the real world” of Elmer’s home. The abruptness with which matters are resolved suggests that somebody was worried audiences didn’t really care about Elmer’s mother, the future of their shop, or their relationship with the difficult landlady. It’s like they assumed that we would be so enthralled with Wild Island that we’d switch off as soon as Elmer heads home. And that’s just not the case.

As I find myself wondering what Elmer has really learned from all of this — something, I suspect, about trusting others to know and take care of their own business. I want to see his adventures translate into meaningful change back on the home turf of Nevergreen. I want to see Elmer Elevator… elevated.

Saiwa the Gorilla seeks to calm the fear-stricken Tamir the Tarsier. [Image from the Netflix trailer.]
Whatever the case, I suspect that my disappointment has less to do with Twomey’s direction and more to do with LeFauve’s adaptation. So many Cartoon Saloon strengths are in evidence here, and so much of what has become Pixar’s weaknesses. I hope we’ll see Twomey elevate a richer, more resonant screenplay next time.

Having said all of this, I reserve the right to change my mind. These are first impressions. So maybe I’m missing something. If so, children, children-at-heart, and parents… let me know what you’re discovering in this narrative as your kids watch it again, and probably again, and probably several times more. Are your kids begging for a stuffed Boris or a plastic Soda toy for their bath time?