Film Review – The Magician’s Elephant
The Magician's Elephant
The Magician’s Elephant (2023) is an animated fantasy that operates by the numbers. It’s colorful, bright, and has a strong central message about never giving up. Characters believe that anything is possible if we push beyond our comfort zones. There’s nothing egregious about the film – it’s perfectly suitable for kids to enjoy and learn a lesson or two. But it plays things way too safely. It has such a traditional storybook quality that it doesn’t leave much of an impression. We wait for it to take off and become alive, but it never does. It’s a magic trick we’ve seen a thousand times before – sure, the presentation is nice, but the sense of awe and wonder are not there.
Adapting the book by Kate DeCamillo, director Wendy Rogers and screenwriter Martin Hynes craft the narrative as a straight-forward tale. Peter (Noah Jupe) is a young lad living in the fictional kingdom of Baltese. Baltese was once a place of magic, but war left a lingering effect – with the sky covered in perpetual clouds. Peter is an orphan, raised by the old, kooky soldier Vilna (Mandy Patinkin). The boy has longed to reconnect with his past, believing that his younger sister may still be alive. Fate turns his way when a fortune teller (Natasia Demetriou) tells him that he can find his sibling’s whereabouts by following a magical elephant. And wouldn’t you know it – that very night, a magician (Benedict Wong) conjures up an elephant by accident!
Peter’s journey to find the elephant and reunite with his sister make up the central narrative arc. We surmise this means going on an epic adventure to lands far and wide, but surprisingly, Peter never leaves Baltese. The elephant enters the possession of The King (Aasif Mandvi) who challenges the boy to three impossible tasks to claim the animal. And that’s where we spend most of the runtime. The title is a bit misleading. This isn’t really about the magician or even the elephant, but of Peter’s persistence to complete the tasks and find his sister. He’s so plucky that it’s almost annoying. He repeats the phrases “I will find my sister!” and “It’s my destiny!” that he’s basically a broken record.
The main attraction are the visuals, especially the environments. The animation constructs Baltese as a pastel-colored fantasyland. Pinks and purples pervade nearly every corner of the frame. The production takes elements from European and Asian influences, creating a place that looks unique. The central highlight is the sky. The clouds look like someone stuck giant eggs above the kingdom. When something miraculous happens, the clouds radiate in a lightshow of soft rainbow hues. There were instances where I wished we could’ve sat back and take in more of the surroundings – to really feel like this is a living, breathing place. During a chase sequence, Peter runs over cobble streets, around corners, over bridges, and through markets. Every time he passed something new, part of me wanted things to stop to take in all the eye candy.
But alas, Peter has more important things to worry about than sightseeing. As he (with the fortune teller’s incessant narration) tells us, he has a sister to find. Fans of Herculean mythology will see slight parallels here, as Peter’s “Impossible Tasks” call to mind Hercules’ Twelve Labours. I’m not saying that Peter is Hercules in this example, but his challenges do take on a mythical aura. As he works his way through each, Peter’s reputation among the people begins to grow. The idea of folk tales, legends, and stories of gallant heroes is a significant part of The Magician’s Elephant. This is both a benefit and hindrance.
While the narrative’s traditional approach crystalizes the central message of never giving up and believing in the impossible, it also makes the characters less interesting. Peter is kind and thoughtful, but he’s also a blank slate. He exists merely to accomplish his goals and nothing more. In fact, it can be argued that the supporting characters are more fascinating than the lead protagonist. Peter’s next door neighbors Leo and Gloria Matienne (Brian Tyree Henry, Sian Clifford) are given more depth, even though they are regulated to simply being Peter’s support system. The most interesting character is the craggy Vilna, who feels like a fully fleshed out person. Sure, he may be raising Peter to be a soldier, and he may tell him that obtaining the elephant is a fool’s mission, but we can at least understand where he is coming from. The writing and direction give Vilna a dimensional background, which makes his arc more believable. He’s not just a mean old so and so – he has a reasoning for his ways and that draws our empathy.
The Magician’s Elephant does just enough to not be terrible, but not enough to be great. It sits in this awkward middle ground where we can see the good things about it, but once the credits roll it vanishes from our memory. Movies don’t have to shoot for the stars to be effective, but there must be something (anything) to make it resonant. It’s not that this film does anything wrong – it’s that it doesn’t really do much of anything at all.