Review: The Magician’s Elephant Boasts a Top Notch Cast, but Fails to Cast a Spell
Netflix had a banner year for animated films in 2022, including the Oscar-nominated The Sea Beast and Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio, which ended up with the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature. But they can’t all be winners. Case in point: The Magician’s Elephant, based on the novel of the same name by award-winning author Kate DiCamillo, about a young boy named Peter (voiced by Noah Jupe) who is searching for his long-lost younger sister Adel (Pixie Davies), whom he’s been told has been dead, but he knows better.
Directed by Wendy Rogers (visual effects supervisor for such films as Shrek, Puss in Boots, Flushed Away, The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian) and adapted by Martin Hynes (Toy Story 4), the film follows Peter on his journey to discover if his sister is really still alive since they were separated years earlier during a bombing of their town during a bombing run. The film is somewhat vague about what war and what town the narrative is referring to, but why get confused with details? He’s being raised by his soldier grandfather (Mandy Patinkin), who has spent the boy’s life preparing him for survival and almost never letting him leave the house. But one day when he’s at the local market, he sees a mysterious tent set up by a traveling fortune teller (Natasia Demetriou, from “What We Do in the Shadows”), who reads his palm and tells him that he must “follow the elephant” to find out where his sister is.
This might seems strange under normal circumstances, except that a visiting magician (Benedict Wong) is in town as well, and he conjures a wayward spell that leads to an elephant appearing out of thin air (accidentally crushing the legs of an old woman, played by Miranda Richardson), and now the town and its flaky king (Aasif Mandvi) don’t know what to do with it. But young Peter asks the king to simply give him the elephant, and after zero consideration, the king agrees as long as Peter can complete three impossible tasks, including making his daughter, the Countess (Kirby Howell-Baptiste), laugh since she doesn’t have much to laugh about these days.
The film also features Brian Tyree Henry as Peter’s neighbor, who looks out for him when his grandfather is being overly protective, and Dawn French as a nun who just might have some information about Peter’s sister’s whereabouts. There’s no denying that the voice cast of The Magician’s Elephant is top notch; it’s the animation and story that are severely lacking. Neither holds a candle to other recent animated endeavors, and the plot simply drifts from moment to moment without any real message beyond “Magic is Awesome” and “Nothing is Impossible.” The animation style is flat and uninspired, with the character designs utterly generic. Despite the glowing cast, it’s a shame a film that speaks so highly of magic can’t generate much in terms of its artistry.
The film is now streaming on Netflix.
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