"The Magician's Elephant" Review: An Elephant-Sized Misfire for Netflix

Chatbots and algorithmically created art are the hot topics of the day, so it feels only natural that Netflix's latest animated film would feel like its been created by a computer system thats been fed every child film since 1998. The Magician's Elephant isn't all bad, but its reliance on platitudinous messaging about "accomplishing the impossible" deflates anything else it might have going for it, destined to evaporate from memory by the next release date.

Adapted from the novel of the same name by Kate DiCamillo, The Magician's Elephant is part wish-fulfillment, part post-War reconciliation story. That description might give you the sense that the film has much more going for it than it actually does, however, as the entire film really has the same tactility of a five year old's bedtime story (it doesn't help that the animation style is cribbed from much more robust studios). Beginning with a torrent of exposition, we are told that Peter (Noah Jupe), is an orphan being raised by a grizzly war veteran by the name of Vilna (Mandy Patinkin, in a distinctly thick and completely unjustified Russian dialect). The two live in the fictional country of Baltese, which was, at one point, the kind of mystical town where everyone had some level of magical ability. But, as the narrator tells us, (Natasia Demtriou, who also plays the mysterious fortune teller), the "Great Foreign War" cast a permanent wet blanket over the town's majesty.

Peter has grown up believing that his parents and younger sister, Adel (Pixie Davies) all died in said Great Foreign War, but one day, by happenstance, he meets the fortune teller in a big bright red tent in the middle of the town square, who tells him that his sister is indeed, alive. In order to track her down, the fortune teller ominously tells Peter to "follow the elephant," which immediately elicits consternation and disbelief. "There aren't any elephants!" Peter exclaims, as does his foster father Vilna, who insists the boy stop believing in impossible things in favor of becoming a soldier. The next day, a traveling magician (Benedict Wong) attempts to perform for the town, but his poor skills accidentally summons a massive elephant from the sky. Peter believes the animal to be proof positive of his sister's existence, and decides to win the elephant from captivity. In order to do so, he is tasked with completing "three impossible tasks" set forth by Baltese's childish king (Aasif Mandvi) who is only motivated by the petulant desire for constant entertainment. With the encouragement of his downstairs neighbor (Brian Tyree Henry), Peter agrees to the tasks, which turn out to be not so much impossible as mildly inconvenient, and, well, you can figure out the rest.

The Magician's Elephant is not a complicated film, and its obvious didacticism is, on some level, expected. This is a children's film, and, to that end, there is a solid commitment to lean storytelling and an admirable diversity amongst the talented voice cast. It seems strange, then, that Wong and Maandvi's characters are both drawn with White avatars, considering the actors are Asian and Indian, respectively, which really kneecap other, better representations like interracial coupling. But the bigger flaw of the film is embedded in its very DNA. The Magician's Daughter wants you to take away a message of defying the odds, but what is impossible about defeating a burly soldier with a fairy tale book or using a parachute to jump from a rooftop, or making a traumatized countess (Kirby Howell-Baptiste) laugh? The longer the film harps on such platitudes of beating the odds, the more it feels mired in mediocrity. Because magic is impossible and so is the revivification of dead relatives. If the message is that believing is enough to get you to accomplish a task like finding a map, then most of it feels like sloppy writing and not genuine uplift. Ultimately the film eschews the book's more harrowing and interesting plot point of post-war familial reconciliation for one about the vague accomplishment of erstwhile "impossible" things, but the decision to do so doesn't endear it to younger audiences so much as patronize them.