If Netflix has an animation specialty when it comes to family fare, it is in the domain of pseudo-fantastical landscapes that feel like the fairly distant but indeterminate past, with a sprinkle of magic in the air. While I recognize this, it seems both very general and quite particular. It’s part of what makes Netflix’s kind of family animation so appealing, and The Magician’s Elephant is no exception.
The Magician’s Elephant, based on Kate DiCamillo’s book, concerns a small child named Peter (Noah Jupe) who is fostered by Vilna (Mandy Patinkin), a harsh old soldier after his family dies.
Despite his very rigorous upbringing, Peter is a pleasant, hopeful young guy – a tribute to his tenacity given that surviving primarily on “tiny fish and stale bread” would put anybody to the test. Not to mention that their gorgeous village has been perpetually clouded over for years, with no sign of the sun.
When Peter spots a fortune-tent teller in town one day, his curiosity triumphs over his prudence. He instead asks the Psychic (Natasia Demetriou) if his younger sister is still alive with the one penny he was meant to use to buy supper. She informs him, ever cryptically, that he must “follow the elephant” to find his sister. So it’s lucky that a local magician (Benedict Wong) has conjured one out of pure nothingness in an attempt to banish the clouds.
Peter resolves to release the elephant from the palace where it is imprisoned to test whether it can genuinely take him to his long-lost sister. Unfortunately for him, the monarch (Aasif Mandvi) is not so easily persuaded. He agrees that Peter can have the elephant if and only if he completes three impossible feats.
The animation in the film is delightful, with a whimsical, storybook character to it that helps the story remain ageless, even when references to the not-so-distant conflict conjure up imagery recognizable to older audiences. But, it is this balance between real and magical that director Wendy Rogers and screenwriter Martin Hynes achieve so brilliantly, and which eventually pulls out the film’s greatest power.
The notion of The Magician’s Elephant is totally lovely as a setup. The difficulty of Peter’s three impossible duties drives the plot and keeps it interesting for the young audience that this picture is undoubtedly aimed for. The lengthier action sequences, too, appear to be constructed with them in mind, even if they occasionally slow down the rhythm.
Many of these stories, the fairy tales, and folktales we all grew up with, always had a moral at their heart. It might be as simple as telling their young audience to behave a specific way or believe in a certain thing, but The Magician’s Elephant’s great brilliance is that it goes beyond that. It instead imparts a lesson that is never stated overtly, but pervades every aspect of the story and stays in the air long after the film has ended.
The magician conjured up the elephant in an attempt to rid the town of its perpetual cloud cover. He hadn’t set out to summon the elephant, but his attempt was fully based on the notion, or hope, that such a thing was conceivable. Peter is motivated to do his three difficult tasks with the same optimism and belief. The dread of failure is there in both circumstances, but it is never powerful enough to dissuade them or make them believe that the impossible tasks they attempt to perform are genuinely impossible.
At the end of the day, it is what I hope the young audience takes away from the film. Things in our world become more and more unattainable with each passing day. Therefore, while the clouds above are symbolic rather than the lovely mammatus cloud kind, the basic idea stays the same.