Kate DiCamillo is a bit of a powerhouse when it comes to children and young adult literature. She wrote Because of Winn-Dixie, The Tales of Despereaux, and Flora & Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures, just to name a few. Her name was a staple in my schooling career, with wholesome stories with excellent life lessons for young readers. All three of these aforementioned novels spawned film adaptations, so it shouldn’t come as too much of a shock that Netflix is ready to bring another of her beloved novels to the streaming service with an animated feature film of The Magician’s Elephant.
Netflix’s The Magician’s Elephant adaptation is brought to life by Martin Hynes, who also co-wrote the screenplay for Toy Story 4. Directed by Wendy Rogers, who worked on visual effects for Puss in Boots, The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian, and Shrek, this film is stacked with so many actors, it seems that The Magician’s Elephant should be a huge hit for Netflix.
Is this film another forgettable family film or something special? Let’s explore what I thought about The Magician’s Elephant in my review below.
[Warning: Spoilers and reactions from The Magician’s Elephant are below!]
Noah Jupe’s character Peter is a boy searching for his family
Peter (Noah Jupe) is an orphan, who has never given up hope of finding his long-lost sister. Separated by war years before the current narrative, Peter remains that optimistic that a warm reunion will happen one day. His guardian, Vilna (Mandy Patinkin), is less sure about Peter’s chances of finding his sister. Instead, Vilna works hard at training Peter to be the perfect soldier in a household that lacks warmth.
On top of the incessant military marching, Peter’s forced to eat stale bread and small fish, another life lesson from Vilna. On a daily excursion to procure his food for the day is where the action truly begins. One day in the market, Peter notices a new tent that’s been erected. Entering the tent, he finds a fortune teller (Natasia Demetriou) sitting there, who is also the narrator of the tale. She offers Peter the chance to ask a question, asking for his food money in return.
Peter jumps at the chance. He asks how he can find his sister. The fortune teller replies that he’ll find his sister by following the elephant. Confused, he leaves, returning to an angry Vilna. What he doesn’t know is that elsewhere in the kingdom, a bumbling magician (Benedict Wong) tries to impress a crowd and accidentally summons an elephant.
An elephant, a boy, and a quest to find his sister
Word spreads quickly in the kingdom that a magician summoned an elephant, leaving those in power scratching their heads. The countess (Kirby Howell-Baptiste) in charge of the city considers having to get rid of the elephant for the safety of all the citizens. Leo (Brian Tyree Henry), the head of the palace guards and Peter’s neighbor, recognizes how important this elephant is to the young man. He takes it upon himself to reach out to the King (Aasif Mandvi) to save the elephant.
The King arrives in the city, wishing to take the elephant for himself. However, the fortune teller’s prophecy rings in Peter’s head. Losing that elephant means also losing the only chance he has of finding his sister. Peter confronts the King who proposes a game of sorts. If Peter wishes to win the elephant from the King, he must complete three impossible tasks. What those tasks are and the outcome of this King’s silly little game is something that has to be experienced instead of read about.
The good and the bad of The Magician’s Elephant
I was pleasantly surprised by the story and writing of this film. The Magician’s Elephant is a film about optimism, remaining hopeful in the darkest of times, and how being kind is the most important trait a person can have. Peter lives in a kingdom covered in physical and metaphorical storm clouds, blocking the happiness and light from the people who live there. However, Peter isn’t afflicted in the same way.
His living situation is bleak and yet he still believes that one day he’ll find his sister. His adopted father provides for him, but it isn’t a life to be excited about. It reminded me a lot of Harry Potter living with his aunt and uncle, though perhaps with a bit less abuse. Yet, at no point does Peter seem to wavier in his resolve that better times are coming. I think that’s something that children and adults will appreciate from this film.
Natasia Demetriou was stellar as the fortune teller/narrator for this film. Her easily recognizable voice was fitting for the mysterious omniscient guide for Peter’s story. I’ve seen Demetriou in What We Do in the Shadows, but her as the narrator in The Magician’s Elephant is far from her vampire role. I don’t think I would have thought of Demetriou immediately if I was casting this film, however, she is the perfect choice for this part.
Mandy Patinkin as Vilna brought an emotional core to this film that I wasn’t expecting. Towards the beginning of The Magician’s Elephant, Vilna comes off as a grumpy old man. He teaches Peter harsh life lessons, to toughen him up to the world. However, there is a bigger story to Vilna, one that comes with a lot of heartbreak. With the exception of Peter, Vilma’s story has the most emotional resonance.
While the majority of the characters are enjoyable and the story is good, some of the animation choices left me baffled. The film has three distinct animation styles that range from spectacular to barely average. The design of the Elephant is a triumph. Every scene in which the elephant was present, stood out. At times it looked like a real elephant on screen, so much so that I could almost fool myself into thinking it was. Then it would stand next to the human characters of the film and the illusion fades.
The humans are clearly animated. They aren’t of the same caliber as the elephant, but the difference is not so egregious that I had to turn the film off. Their style was reminiscent of the last year’s Luck on Apple TV+. That’s what came to mind the moment I saw them. So not bad, just vastly different from that of the superior elephant.
Then there is the animation of the clouds in the sky. The clouds are an important detail for the film, and yet their stark contrast to the animation style of the rest of the film was odd. I constantly found myself staring at them, not even recognizing they were supposed to be clouds for a third of the film. The combination of all three styles was jarring at first, however as I got further into the film, I found myself paying less attention to their differences and more focusing on the story.
Final thoughts on Netflix’s The Magician’s Elephant
Overall I enjoyed this movie. It’s a wonderful film to watch with the family. It has humor and heart, which is perfect for family films. While the mixed animation styles were jarring at first, it doesn’t diminish the fantastic work that was done to bring this fantasy to life. So if you’re looking for a Friday night film to watch with your children, or even by yourself, The Magician’s Elephant is not one to miss.
My rating for the film:
★★★ / ♥♥♥♥
The Magician’s Elephant streams on Netflix on March 17. Are you interested in checking on the film? Let us know on Twitter or in The Cosmic Circus discord. And if you haven’t already, check out our review of Netflix’s Pinocchio!
Review: Guillermo Del Toro’s Pinocchio