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‘My Father’s Dragon’: A Timeless, Truthful Take on Facing Fears

For head of story and animation director Giovanna Ferrari, Nora Twomey’s touching animated feature film’s depiction of how turmoil can upend a child’s life, and how parents face their own doubts while trying to stay strong for their kids, strikes a very personal chord.

Ruth Stiles Gannett 1948 children’s novel, “My Father’s Dragon,” the first of a trilogy, has been adapted several times. A Japanese animated film based on the novel and its illustrations premiered in 1997 and then, in 2011, the story was adapted into an American stage musical. 

The latest, My Father’s Dragon, released last Friday, November 11 on Netflix, is another animated adaptation, taking flight with Academy Award-nominated Irish animator, director, screenwriter, and producer, Nora Twomey, in the director’s chair and Inside Out’s Oscar-nominated writer Meg LeFauve spearheading the script. The story follows a young boy named Elmer, who moves from a small town to a big city with his mom when their family-owned shop goes out of business. Desperate to get his old life back, Elmer is told the answer to his problem lies with a mysterious dragon in a place called Wild Island. 

But, when Elmer arrives on the island, he finds the dragon, named Boris, needs an answer-man type savior just as much as he does. While much of the exciting, eye-catching, and more colorful scenes involve Elmer’s time with Boris on Wild Island, some of the film’s most surprisingly vulnerable moments occur earlier in the film, between Elmer and his mother. 

“It was very interesting to talk about the upending of a child's life, the turmoil of having been uprooted in such a devastating way, the consequences of that, and the resilience that it requires,” notes head of story and animation director Giovanna Ferrari. “At the time, I had lived through it and my daughter had lived through it also.”

In the beginning of the film – produced by Cartoon Saloon, Mockingbird Pictures, Higher Ground Productions, Superprod, Laughing Wild and others – Elmer and his mother Dela happily work together in their thriving market. But recession takes its toll and soon there are no more customers and no more goods to sell. Forced to move to an overcrowded city, appropriately called Nevergreen, Dela makes a pact to save the money she and Elmer have left to open up a new shop across from their tiny, beat-up apartment. But times get hard, as they tend to do, and it’s not long before all the coins from the savings jar are gone, Dela having used them trying to find a new job. 

Already scraping money together for rent, Dela feels the pressure of their dire situation, and trying to keep a happy face on for her son starts to take its toll. A sudden, angry confrontation leads to Elmer running away from home. 

“Not very long before [starting on the film], I had relocated after a separation, basically a divorce,” shares Ferrari, also known for her work on Twomey’s The Breadwinner, Song of the Sea, and Wolfwalkers. “I knew what it meant to relocate as a single mom, and to bring your kid far away, and to have that phase of, ‘Yeah, everything is going to be great,’ when you actually don’t know if everything is going to be great. That felt it was very personal to me.”

The film’s script was already written when Mockingbird Pictures approached Twomey about the film, but many changes were subsequently made during production, of which Ferrari played a big part.

“The story has evolved incredibly from the beginning,” says Ferrari. “So, of course, that means there's a lot of me in it and I'm very proud of it.”

She continues, “When Elmer has the argument with his mom, the way that happens, that's very realistic. And it's very uncommon to see that in an animated movie, especially when it’s a movie with a young audience. Usually, we see movies that talk down to the audience, rather than showing the point of view of a parent, who accidentally lifts up the mask and shows their child the monstrosity of their situation by mistake. That's a weakness in every parent.”

But that weakness turned out to be the film’s strength. Elmer’s experience on Wild Island is not only meant for kids who are struggling with unforeseen and quite scary situations, but also parents whose children believe they have all the answers when, really, they are often hurting just as much, and are just as afraid of failing the innocent, hopeful, and trusting faces of those they love most. 

“I love that we could bring that in,” says Ferrari. “Apart from the fact that I like it, Nora is a director who adores finding those real nuggets of truth.”

While not everyone on the team had the same experience as Ferrari and her daughter, or Dela and Elmer, everyone can remember a moment where they felt out of control, like too much change was happening at once, where they were expected to grow up too early, or told they’re not old enough to understand. Its themes that were instilled into the original book and concepts that remain timeless… for better or worse. 

“In a way, the story became personal to everybody because they were all uprooted and upended in 2020 because of the pandemic,” says Ferrari. “This timeless idea of a difficult world… we wanted to make a movie that didn't end up feeling like it belonged only to this particular part of the human experience. And I think that's something we achieved. In 50 years, you’ll watch this movie, and you won't actually know when it was made. Even though it's clearly coming from a period of great economic depression, it's so universal that it can apply to everything.”

Ferrari also believes this is what made Twomey’s signature storybook 2D animation a perfect fit to help convey both a fantastical world on Wild Island, as well as fear’s corruption of innocence. 

“It's impossible to be timeless with 3D because it will always look dated,” explains Ferrari. “We will always be able to say what period it was done, because technology advances and it's never the same.”

Of course, it also doesn’t hurt saving some production budget on scenes where a massive, living island, sinking into the sea, lightning shooting in all directions, is saved, raised from the depths of the ocean by a glowing dragon. 

“With 2D, there was nothing we could not do,” says Ferrari. “And there is a lot going on in the movie. The island is a character itself. The water is a character itself. All these things would have been extremely complicated in 3D. And, of course, they were still complicated to do. The effects department was amazing and did a great job. But, as a storyboard artist, as a creative, when you're writing the story, when you're thinking about what to put in a scene, you don't have to worry about the feasibility of a shot in 2D. Everything is doable when you draw it.”

And this freedom allowed Ferrari to focus more on the emotional aspects of My Father’s Dragon. “I have seen 3D productions focus so much on tools that must be developed to show something they want to show that it becomes more important than what they’re actually showing,” says Ferrari. “We didn’t have that problem.”

Now that the film, which Ferrari affectionately refers to as her and the crew’s “lasagna of good things,” is wrapped, along with COVID lockdowns, the storyboarder says the character of Elmer reminds her more and more of her daughter.

“She entered the pandemic as a child, and now she’s a teenager,” shares Ferrari. “At the end of the movie, after the team has defeated the theme of fear, we’re talking about a phase in which children start to elect a family. They start to evolve into social beings that build their own little network. And that's something that I saw happen with my daughter after the pandemic lock-down was finally over.”

Ferrari hopes their adaptation of My Father’s Dragon brings families closer together with the understanding that, at the end of the day, parents and their children are not all that different. 

“We [as a team] don't like to talk to children as if they were minor human beings,” states Ferrari. “We like to elevate children to the same level. Morally speaking, I don't think there is a difference between an adult and a child. Fear is a weakness that we all have, that we usually shy away from. We hide it. That's what I think is powerful about this story.”

Victoria Davis's picture

Victoria Davis is a full-time, freelance journalist and part-time Otaku with an affinity for all things anime. She's reported on numerous stories from activist news to entertainment. Find more about her work at