The Magician’s Elephant, 2023.
Directed by Wendy Rogers
Starring Noah Jupe, Natasia Demetriou, Brian Tyree Henry, Mandy Patinkin, Miranda Richardson, Pixie Davies, Cree Summer, Lorraine Toussaint, Sian Clifford, Aasif Mandvi, Dawn French and Benedict Wong.
The Magician’s Elephant follows Peter, who is searching for his long-lost sister. When he crosses paths with a fortune teller in the market square, he want to know, is his sister still alive? To get the answer, he must find a mysterious elephant and the magician who will conjure it, setting Peter off on a journey to complete three seemingly impossible tasks that will change the face of his town.
Netflix are setting themselves quite the high bar when it comes to their feature-length toons; whether that’s with animated acquisitions like The Mitchells vs. the Machines, which was purchased from Sony Pictures, or their own creations, such as newly crowned Academy Award winner Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio, animation is fast becoming one of the dominant aspects of user algorithm on the streaming-service for viewers of all ages.
This latest effort ticks all of the toon boxes. It’s based on a revered novel, in this case Kate DiCamillo’s 2009 best-seller, and it focuses on an abandoned child befriending an anthropomorphised animal on a journey of self-discovery. So it’s a shame then that The Magician’s Elephant lacks that one key ingredient that the title suggests will be in abundance; magic.
Before we get to such cynicism, it’s fair to say that the animation is a delight. Seeped in a purple hue, with streets rendered in a diorama-style beauty beneath a sky dancing with colour and bulbous shapes. It feels as though the craft can sometimes be taken for granted now that we know animation can be churned out by a computer and syndicated around the world to make a fast buck, but this is the antithesis of that. The way in which the town of Baltese and its inhabitants are brought to life is wonderful to behold. Drawn with a simplicity that shares similarities with Del Toro’s stop-motion world, it feels as though this fictional place could exist on the other-side of his Italian mountains.
The Magician’s Elephant also takes place against the backdrop of war, one in its immediate past, where characters are trying to find their place in the world, and so is built on a foundation of struggle – “Fish are small, bread is stale, life is not a fairytale” – which grounds the story and its characters, but also buoys the film with a resonant message of hope.
As such, its heart might be in the right place, but the straight-faced seriousness ultimately means that there’s not a lot of fun to be had, all resulting in a pretty humourless affair. The voice-actors imbue their animated alter-egos with enthusiasm, and we’re guided by a great narrative voiceover from What We Do In the Shadows‘ Natasia Demetriou, but there are very few laughs to be had along-the-way. It’s all just far too earnest, and the target audience might get a little restless.
However, with any film like this you have the appeal of a cute animal to distract you from the lack of excitement on offer, and while this pachyderm might be caught up in a pedestrian plot, her relationship with Peter drives the movies heartfelt message towards an effective all-the-feels finale.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film ★ ★ / Movie ★ ★ ★
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