If Netflix has an animation niche when it comes to family fare, then it exists within the realm of pseudo-fantastical worlds that feel like the moderately distant yet undefined past that almost always have a sprinkle of magic in the air. While I acknowledge this, it sounds both very vague and extremely specific. It’s part of what makes Netflix’s brand of family animation so comforting to watch, and their latest film The Magician’s Elephant is no exception.
Based on the book by Kate DiCamillo, The Magician’s Elephant follows a young boy named Peter (Noah Jupe), raised by Vilna (Mandy Patinkin) a stern old soldier following the death of his family. Despite the relatively strict nature of his upbringing, Peter remains a kind, hopeful young man — a testament to his fortitude since surviving solely on “small fish and stale bread” would test just about anyone. Not to mention the fact that their charming town has been under perpetual cloud cover for years, with no hint of the sun whatsover.
One day, Peter spies a fortune-teller’s tent in town, and his curiosity wins out over his practicality. He takes the one coin he was meant to buy supper with and instead asks the Fortune Teller (Natasia Demetriou) whether his little sister is still alive. Ever cryptic, she tells him that in order to find his sister, he must “follow the elephant.” How fortunate, then, that a local magician (Benedict Wong) just so happens to have conjured one out of thin air in an attempt to banish the clouds.
Peter becomes determined to free the elephant from the palace where it is being kept, in order to see if it truly can guide him to his long-lost sister. Unfortunately for him, the king (Aasif Mandvi) isn’t willing to let the animal go so easily. He agrees that Peter can have the elephant for himself, if and only if he manages to complete three impossible tasks.
The film’s animation is charming, with a quirky, storybook quality to the whole thing that helps the tale feel timeless, even when mentions of the not-so-distant war conjure up images familiar to older audiences. But it’s this balance between grounded and fantastical that director Wendy Rogers and screenwriter Martin Hynes manage so well, and that ultimately draws out the biggest strength in the film.
As far as a set-up goes, the premise of The Magician’s Elephant is utterly charming. The challenge of Peter’s three impossible tasks drives the narrative, and keeps it engaging for the young audience this film is no doubt aiming at. The extended action sequences, too, seem designed with them in mind, even if they do slow down the pacing occasionally.
Many stories of this kind, the fairy tales and folktales we all grew up with, always contained a moral at their core. It could be something as simple as a directive to their young audience to behave a certain way, or to believe in a certain thing, but the true strength of The Magician’s Elephant is that it goes beyond that. It dispenses instead a lesson that is never stated quite so explicitly, but instead permeates every bit of the narrative and lingers in the air after the movie is over.
The elephant herself was conjured up by the magician in an attempt to rid the town of its permanent cloud cover. He hadn’t intended to conjure the elephant, but his attempt hinged entirely on the belief, on the hope, that such a thing was possible. It’s the same hope and belief that drives Peter in completing his three impossible tasks. In both cases, the fear of failure is present, but it’s never strong enough to deter them, or make them feel as though the impossible things they seek to do are truly impossible.
That, at the end of the day, is what I hope the young audience draws from the film. In our world, things seem increasingly impossible with each passing day. And while the clouds that hang overhead are more metaphorical and less the adorable mammatus cloud variety, the core value remains the same.
The Magician’s Elephant arrives on Netflix on March 17.