THE STORY – The orphan boy Peter sets out to find his missing sister. He asks a fortune teller if she is still alive. She advises him to find a magician with an elephant. Peter must then complete three difficult tasks.
THE CAST – Noah Jupe, Mandy Patinkin, Natasia Demetriou, Benedict Wong, Miranda Richardson & Aasif Mandvi
THE TEAM – Wendy Rogers (Director) & Martin Hynes (Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 100 Minutes
Based on Kate DiCamillo’s novel of the same name, “The Magician’s Elephant” is Netflix’s latest animated feature. The streamer aims to disrupt the animation space by releasing various animated films utilizing different styles and visions, aiming for roughly one animated film a month. This is a bold approach, starkly different from the other major animated studios that typically release just a few films a year if that. Quantity, however, does not always breed quality. “The Magician’s Nephew” is a well-meaning, sweet film that lacks a compelling story and appealing aesthetic to match its heart.
Peter (Noah Jupe) lives a boring life in a boring town. Ages ago, strange clouds covered the city and never went away. Orphaned at a young age, Peter lives with Vilna (Mandy Patinkin), a grizzled ex-soldier who’s a little crazed and never leaves the house. “Fish are stale. Bread is stale. Life is not a fairy tale,” Vilna makes Peter recite repeatedly. The adventure begins in earnest when Peter visits a fortune teller (Natasia Demetriou) to ask if his sister, who supposedly died in an accident years ago, might still be alive. “Follow the elephant,” she tells Peter. One problem: there are no elephants in his town, not yet, anyway. That night, unbeknownst to Peter, a failing magician (Benedict Wong) somehow makes an elephant appear out of nowhere.
The sudden appearance of an elephant in this city naturally causes chaos, and a visiting king (Aasif Mandvi) eventually gains control of the elephant. If Peter wants the elephant to help him find his sister, the king says he must complete three impossible tasks. Peter finds help from people in his life to try and finish his mission. While the story is simple enough for young kids to follow, it’s too simple to really be engaging. Initially, it seemed Peter would go on some sort of adventure to find his sister. The film made it seem like there could be another layer to this story besides the three challenges and some other inciting incident that would take it to a new level. That never came. Rather than the tasks being a step toward the eventual adventure, Peter’s three tasks are the whole story, making “The Magician’s Elephant” feel too straightforward.
As Peter attempts to complete his tasks, the message of hope and the belief that people can do the impossible comes through clearly. It’s a beautiful message, and the movie wears its heart on its sleeve. Though, this message may be too on the nose. As Peter’s efforts begin to give the townspeople some hope for the first time in ages, it spreads from person to person in visible golden wisps that travel up to the strange clouds in the sky. Even so, it’s tough to fault a film when the message is so lovely. Peter realizes that people can do the impossible, especially when working together.
The visual style of “The Magician’s Elephant” doesn’t help elevate the straightforward story either. While the environments are well-detailed and stimulating, the characters fall somewhere in the uncanny valley between cartoonish and realistic. With sharp angles and rubbery movement, the look is unappealing. Further, as the film goes on, we gather that the town is supposed to be a drab, hopeless place, as illustrated by the strange clouds in the sky. Oddly enough, the town never seemed drab or hopeless at all. It’s still a relatively bright and colorful place where people help each other and seem kind, even before the movie’s end. The film’s visuals didn’t match the story it was trying to tell.
As a lovely film for kids to hear a good message, “The Magician’s Elephant” works but certainly leaves much to be desired. Heartfelt themes are essential, but they feel empty or unearned without a compelling story. For a movie with a titular magician, this was missing some magic.