Director Nora Twomey tells IndieWire that there is still a lot of thematic complexity in her adaptation of Ruth Stiles Gannett’s classic children’s book.
Cartoon Saloon’s “My Father’s Dragon” (streaming on Netflix November 11), the whimsical 2D adaptation of Ruth Stiles Gannett’s classic children’s book, got some Oscar hit this week by winning the special jury prize at the Animation Is Film Festival. It’s quite a contrast to Irish director Nora Twomey’s Oscar-nominated directorial debut, “The Breadwinner,” based on Deborah Ellis’ popular YA novel about Afghan oppression.
But the very suggestion that ‘My Father’s Dragon’ is more child-friendly leads to protest from the director. The tone may be softer, but the themes of parenthood and puberty are very complex, she emphasizes.
“My Father’s Dragon” explores the rite of passage experienced by the restless Elmer (Jacob Tremblay), who runs away from his hardworking mother (Golshifteh Farahani) and their bleak existence in the black city of Nevergreen to the colorful but endangered Wild Island, where he bonds with a dragon named Boris (Gaten Matarazzo) who needs confidence.
The prospect of adapting “My Father’s Dragon” was first presented to Cartoon Saloon ten years ago, when producer Julie Lynn approached the studio in Ireland with the project. “When I first read the book in 2012, there was one page that jumped out, where Elmer gives several saucers of milk to a stray cat and his mother gets really mad at him,” Twomey told IndieWire. “It immediately made me aware of all the layers of storytelling because I couldn’t help but imagine what was going on in the mother’s life that she would make this such a big deal of a problem. And what happened in his life when he looks in the face of his mother and sees a moment of anger with lack of control and fear. I can imagine not knowing what happens next in your life as a mother.”
Thanks to Netflix
Twomey was instantly hooked and teamed up with Lynn (“Raymond & Ray”) and screenwriter Meg LeFauve (“Inside Out”) to expand the story. Early on, the director met Stiles Gannett to discover more about her inspiration. “She said she wrote it for herself because she connected with her inner child,” Twomey said. “She spoke about the importance of children’s autonomy, and that was the spirit I wanted to capture. Life is no longer easy for Elmer and his mother no longer has all the answers for him. It’s about puberty, and that came about with the voice renditions of Gaten, who was 17, and Jacob, who was 12. Their voices were unchecked, revealing a wonderful vulnerability that is at the heart of the film. Gaten’s voice would shoot up an octave and he’d apologize and I made sure we recorded that.”
Brothers Mychael and Jeff Danna scored the film based on the extreme highs and lows of the human voice. “It supports the same idea about the range of experiences the two kids go through,” Twomey said. “Elmer and Boris are two kids trying to cope with the changes they’re going through.”
Thanks to Netflix
As for the character designs, they were inspired by the hand-drawn black-and-white illustrations of Ruth Stiles Gannett’s stepmother, Ruth Chrisman Gannett, as well as drawings by the children of Cartoon Saloon employees – including Twomey’s two sons. “We asked them to draw the characters to see what they would do,” she added. “It helped the imagination. They would draw a tiger’s head that is much bigger than it actually is, because it is most dangerous with its bite. They would draw a tangle of crocodiles.”
Wild Island contained no boundaries. Instead of brown and green, the color palette was mauve and gold, much warmer than the gray and eternally wet Nevergreen. Cartoon Saloon walked with it and created a great sense of scale and immersion, but also imbalance as the island slowly sinks. That’s why it’s deliberately chaotic. “If Elmer loses his footing or is chased, the audience gets the same visceral feeling when we introduce effects like drizzle, water, rain and lightning,” says Twomey. “Elmer is a little boy in a big world that he has no control over. But he takes the lead because Boris doesn’t want to.”
Boris, meanwhile, is no ordinary dragon. He is blue with yellow stripes and soft in appearance, which complements his sense of inadequacy. “We had to check the colors carefully on Wild Island,” said the director. “In order to focus on the characters’ performances, which was essential for the animators, we often had to reflect the light around Boris in such a way that he took on the colors of the area he was walking through. Otherwise the blue and yellow would have been extremely overwhelming. But it is designed in such a way that it feels uncomfortable. Everything Boris does suggests not taking him seriously and not asking him what to do. He doesn’t feel capable. And Elmer almost crushes himself with his physicality for taking on a lot more than a kid should.
Thanks to Netflix
This was a pivot away from the more refined, illustrated quality of Cartoon Saloon’s previous films, each of which was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Animated Feature. “My Father’s Dragon” incorporates a more refined, classic aesthetic. While the studio continued to use TVPaint to get brush and pencil strokes, it first used Toon Boom for effects and digital ink-and-paint, ensuring a fluid workflow during the pandemic. The studio was also introduced to Moho for extra rigging to lift the island or to handle a lot of line work associated with crowd characters.
The film also sharpens performance more accurately than previous Cartoon Saloon efforts. “I remember telling the animators how to read the faces because there’s a difference between what they say and what they do,” Twomey said. “They often try to protect someone from something else. Subtlety was important. This is about the change that takes place in children’s lives and what happens to them when the safety is gone. We all have deep wounds. I am proud of stories that can investigate that in a way that does not exclude anyone.”
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