With its expressionistic, skillfully lit pastels, “My Father’s Dragon” appears, at first, to be a high-tier cartoon for young sophisticates, as one might expect from the Oscar nominee Nora Twomey, who previously directed “The Breadwinner.” Enter the dragon, Boris (Gaten Matarazzo), who promptly shoves a blocky paw into his armpit and squeezes out an air fart.
For better and worse, Meg LeFauve and John Morgan’s freewheeling adaptation of Ruth Stiles Gannett’s 1948 children’s novel keeps the title and scant else. This tale opens on a boy named Elmer (voiced by Jacob Tremblay), whose cloyingly idyllic childhood collapses when his mother (Golshifteh Farahani) goes broke, forcing the pair to move to a grim tenement in the city. The excitement doesn’t start until the second act when Elmer ventures to Wild Island to steal Boris, calculating that a dragon exhibit could salvage the family fortune. However, the island’s fanciful inhabitants — rhinos shaped like lozenges, baby crocodiles who resemble purple-eyed paisleys — have been convinced by a blustering gorilla (Ian McShane) that Boris must remain in their servitude to prevent their fragile homeland from sinking into sea.
The film’s mix of tones is as wild as its setting. In one moment, the story insightfully explores the emotional turbulence of characters who feel pressured to pretend that everything is under control even as they suspect they’re hurtling toward catastrophe; in another, an over-caffeinated whale (Judy Greer) squeals “Yaaaaas!” It’s one part doom cloud, one part squirting prank flower — an uneasy balance that’s united only by stunning visuals which sweep the audience along even when the gags stumble.