Wendy Rogers’ The Magician’s Elephant is an animated fairy tale with an inspiring message that will have audiences smiling from beginning to end.
As someone who’s filled with anxiety on a daily basis, life can sometimes feel impossible. Sometimes, even the simple idea of seeing another person can feel overwhelming and out of my reach. So, it’s nice to know now that whenever I feel like this in the future, I can simply look back on the moving storytelling of The Magician’s Elephant, and just recall its central thesis. Netflix’s latest animated release argues that “impossible” is a word created by people without ambition and that no matter the task, whether it’s something as huge as flying or fighting the strongest warrior in the land, or even something as small as simply cheering up someone who’s had a hard few years, nothing is completely unachievable. We’re humans after all, so surely we can do anything.
The Magician’s Elephant comes to us from first-time director Wendy Rogers and adapts Kate DiCamillo’s 2009 novel of the same name. It follows Peter (Noah Jupe), a young orphan who believes that his supposedly dead sister is still alive. His search leads him to a fortune teller, who simply informs him to follow an elephant, although no elephant seemingly exists in his city. He’s then asked to do three impossible tasks, with the promise that if he completes all of them, he’ll win the elephant and be finally able to meet his long-lost sister.
Now, admittedly this isn’t the most complex film to ever exist. It’s not too hard to figure out the central message of the film and you’ll probably have the entire plot figured out beat for beat by the 20-minute mark, but that’s not what makes it good. For one, I think the message itself is incredibly important, especially for the younger audiences this film is aimed for.
We live in a world that gets more terrifying by the day, and when all the horrors of adult life start to appear in front of you, there’s definitely an immediate desire to give up. But Peter never once relents, and the incredibly likeable protagonist is everything that kids should aspire to be. Someone who in the face of adversity, tries their best. The film delivers this message with such a genuine sense of sincerity and belief that people are actually good that you can’t help but clap along.
Easily one of The Magician’s Elephant’s greatest strengths is just how funny it can be. There are moments where the script is genuinely quite witty, getting quite a few laughs from me, but there’s also the occasional moment where it’s all down to the line delivery. The film can sometimes feel cheesy to the point of cringe-worthy, and sometimes it feels so over-the-top that it starts to feel intentional, and Jupe’s line deliveries in particular can sometimes sound so overly corny that it becomes hilarious and genuinely got a laugh out of me. Whether or not this was always their intention is a different conversation, but I’m going to ignore that and say this is absolutely what they were going for because it definitely works.
Animation-wise, it can be somewhat hit-and-miss throughout. The titular elephant looks stunning, and the patterns they paint on them are beautiful and vibrant. However, the characters’ faces are slightly less so, and can sometimes look a tad too realistic. In particular, I spent almost the entire runtime trying to figure out which actress the young girl Adel (Pixie Davies) reminded me of, as her face almost looks too familiar to the point of being somewhat unsettling. It’s not quite an uncanny valley, but it did make me miss the simpler 2D designs of the past, and wonder what a film with this story that uses a more unique art style could have been like. I would have loved to have seen a version of this that, for example, was made by Cartoon Saloon, using the same gorgeous style as films like Song of the Sea (2014) and Wolfwalkers (2020).
I think the main word I’d use to describe The Magician’s Elephant would be important. Its message feels sincere and incredibly timely, and I can see any viewer taking a lot away from watching this. With that being said, I do wish the execution was more consistently creative. There are a lot of great scenes here, but it’s missing that underlying hook that separates it from a crowd of similar animated films. It desperately needs a signature look, fantastic original music or even a particularly memorable character. As it is, everything is good, but there’s, unfortunately, nothing brilliant about it. The dialogue can definitely be its greatest weakness, and for every witty line, there’s one that comes across as a bit awkward and breaks the film’s flow.
Overall, I really enjoyed The Magician’s Elephant, and I think that over time it’ll come to be appreciated as an underrated animated gem. I just wish there were slightly more creative risks involved when it comes to the animation, as the message is fantastic and absolutely one I think everyone could get something out of. The impossible can be possible if you just put your mind to it.
The Magician’s Elephant will be available to watch on Netflix from March 17, 2023.