Is there an animal better suited to the big screen than the elephant? From Topsy (RIP) to Dumbo, these magnificent creatures have been especially prominent in documentaries and animation. (Understandable, given the logistical difficulties of making the soulful pachyderms into live-action protagonists.) Continuing this long tradition is “The Magician’s Elephant,” in which a boy (voiced by Noah Jupe) must complete three seemingly impossible tasks to find the younger sister he thought died at birth.
Netflix Animation’s latest offering uses the concept of magic to express the idea that nothing is impossible if your heart is in the right place and you believe in yourself. While the movie itself is more whimsical than magical, it does have a few tricks up its sleeve.
The three trials Peter must complete aren’t edicts from the movie’s eponymous magician, who barely factors into the narrative beyond conjuring the elephant out of thin air, but rather a royal decree from an eccentric king (Aasif Mandavi). The ruler’s reasoning is simple, if also a bit skewed: Since Peter’s hope of finding his sister by heeding a fortune teller’s advice to “follow the elephant” is impossible, he should have to prove his mettle by achieving the impossible on his lonesome. (Bored monarchs aren’t known for being reasonable, one supposes.)
Ergo, Peter must best the city’s fiercest warrior in single combat, fly and make a bereaved countess laugh for the first time since her brother died in battle. Before each attempt, Peter centers himself by saying “I will find her” to himself — a reminder of why he’s putting himself through this and why it’s ultimately worth it.
“The Magician’s Elephant” takes place in Baltese, a vaguely Central European town still reeling from the Great Foreign War. Though fictional and intentionally vague, its picturesque backdrop and melancholy vibe evoke the aftermath of World War I. “Nothing felt possible or magical,” narrates the fortune teller (Natasia Demetriou) who sets Peter on his path, “and then the clouds rolled in.” Those clouds are the film’s most distinctive visual element: a gloomy ceiling hovering over Baltese that looks as though opaque snowballs floated a set distance above the town and got stuck there.
The film was directed by first-time helmer Wendy Rogers from a script by “Toy Story 4” scribe Martin Hynes, who adapted Newberry Award winner Kate DiCamillo’s YA novel. Their story beats are familiar, but Peter is easy to root for and the animation itself has an elegant quality befitting the narrative’s whimsy. That’s especially true of the unnamed pachyderm, who at one point has a dream of her family in which they all swim underwater together. It’s an evocative sequence, the kind you can’t help wishing “The Magician’s Elephant” featured more of. Animation doesn’t necessarily need more anthropomorphized and/or talking animals, but too often the elephant feels like a plot device rather than an actual character.
Consider this passage from DiCamillo’s book, for instance, which fleshes out its title character more in a few sentences than the movie does in its entire runtime: “The elephant was saying her name to herself. It was not a name that would make any sense to humans. It was an elephant name — a name that her brothers and sisters knew her by, a name that they spoke to her in laughter and in play. It was the name that her mother had given to her and that she had spoken to her often and with love.” In the novel, the elephant forgets her name after being brought into the world of Baltese and decides “that she would like to die.” It’s tragic and beautiful in a way the film never is.
Netflix Animation is releasing this film first in theaters (on March 10) and then to the streaming platform (March 17) on the heels of “Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio,” which became the studio’s first to win the animated feature Oscar. While accepting the award on Sunday, del Toro reiterated his claim that “animation is cinema,” not merely a genre, and must be kept in the conversation. “The Magician’s Elephant” is certainly part of that conversation, though it feels more like a rabbit being pulled from a hat than an illusion you’ve never seen before.