Based on the novel of the same name by Kate DiCamillo, The Magician’s Elephant is an endearing, whimsical tale about one boy’s quest to find his lost sister and the town he inspires to believe in magic again. In Netflix’s latest animated film, directed by Wendy Rogers from a screenplay by Martin Hynes, the story has less to do with magic and is more focused on the feeling attached to magic.
In the vaguely European town of Baltese, war has brought in clouds of despair. The once vibrant town is now plagued with melancholy, with very few citizens willing to hope. Enter Peter (Noah Jupe), a young orphan who happens upon a tent one day. He meets a fortuneteller who speaks in riddles — until she gives him the answer he needs to set off on an adventure to find his lost sister. Believing she was dead for so many years, young Peter now has hope thanks to an elephant.
The animated story is familiar, and the sentimentality is slightly overdone, but The Magician’s Elephant is pleasant. Its audience will undoubtedly be on the younger side as the narrative is relatively thin, and the darker themes are tamed for easy consumption. There is an elegance to how Rogers and her creative team tell this story that is not often found in animation targeted at children. The animation style and key character moments will elicit a strong emotional response. Adults will find themselves equally moved but unimpressed with the story itself. There is an inexplicable hollowness in the writing, but the vibrancy of the animation and the earnestness of the story manages to distract from the script.
The one major fault that can be found is that the story does not flow. The Magician’s Elephant is more like several little vignettes loosely tied together by Peter. The elephant is more of a plot device than a character in her own right, though the film captures the agony of her situation beautifully. She and Peter’s sister aren’t given ample room to exist as individuals; they are just pieces to Peter’s story. The titular magician is mostly trapped in a cell for most of the film, and his arc is equally muted. While the script is endearing and moving, little draws the audience in, and the central idea of “magic is possible if you believe” is not adequately conveyed.
All that said, the film is still entertaining.The Magician’s Elephant has one clear advantage, and that is its visuals. The visual design is wholly unique to this story, while fitting into the larger Netflix animation world alongside The Sea Beast and Klaus. The town of Baltese is beautifully rendered and is brought to life with dynamic and varied character designs. The clouds that shield the sun in Baltese are less like clouds and are more like foreboding, opaque bubbles of doom, effectively visualizing how the people have protected themselves from feeling joy or hope in fear of losing it all.
Ultimately, The Magician’s Elephant is a delightful sleight of hand trick. One is not sure what they are going to get, but they will believe in it whatever it may be. That is all one can ask for from a film like this. There is no grand spectacle; there are no immeasurable odds for our hero to overcome. The Magician’s Elephant is just a quaint family drama that reinforces the value of belief.
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The Magician’s Elephant is streaming on Netflix as of March 17. It is 99 minutes long and is rated PG for some action/peril and thematic elements.