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‘The Magician’s Elephant’

by Courtney Lanning | March 17, 2023 at 1:31 a.m.
Never forget: Young Peter (voiced by Noah Jupe) has to perform three labors to acquire an elephant he believes will lead him to his lost sister in “The Magician’s Elephant.”

Netflix Animation has a new offering to follow-up its Oscar-nominated hit, "The Sea Beast." The latest film, "The Magician's Elephant," is a little less boisterous but remains nonetheless a charming tale that's full of heart.

Those who watched the trailer could be forgiven for thinking the movie would be pretty rough to sit through, like 2021's "Pinocchio: A True Story," starring Paulie Shore. But the "The Magician's Elephant" dispels any doubt that it has magic to share within a few minutes. It's based on a 2009 novel of the same title by author Kate DiCamillo.

Fans of "What We Do in the Shadows" will immediately recognize Natasia Demetriou as the story's narrator. She carries a similar energy as Nadja in her role (but with a more empathetic character), telling the tale of a young boy named Peter (Noah Jupe), who dreams of being reunited with a sister he was separated from after her birth.

Sometimes when Demetriou is narrating, the entire film almost feels like her WWDITS character, Nadja, reading a bedtime story to Guillermo. Her screentime is minimal compared to other characters, and yet, she leaves a big impression as both narrator and a fortune teller who helps guide, not just Peter, but the entire town back toward believing in magic.

The setting for "The Magician's Elephant" is a western European town named Baltese recovering from an unspecified war. This was a place that once believed in magic, and where it was apparently common until war ravaged the countryside. After that, a sort of dull energy settled over the population. People were more somber and refused to place any stock in fairy tales.

After Peter meets the fortune teller, he asks how to find his sister. And the fortune teller says to "follow the elephant." Despirited, he returns home to his guardian, an old war veteran named Vilna, training Peter to be a soldier.

That night, an accident-prone magician (Benedict Wong) performs for a crowd in Baltese. His tricks don't impress the audience, who begin to heckle him until he calls up a volunteer for one last bit of magic. In front of everyone, he performs an unknown spell and summons an elephant to the stage. It falls from the air above and lands on the volunteer's leg, crushing it.

The magician is subsequently arrested, and the elephant is imprisoned as well. Word spreads through the town about the elephant, and when Peter hears the news, he becomes elated and believes it'll lead him to his sister.

Asking for the creature to be given to him, Peter is told by the king (Aasif Mandvi) he can have the elephant if he performs three impossible feats in front of everyone.

Determined to be reunited with his sister, Peter sets out to do as the king bids, and inadvertently convinces the town that magic is worth believing in once more.

As far as fairy tales go, this one is pretty simple, and that definitely lends to the film's overall charm. Peter's predicament is relatable, wanting to be reunited with his family. And, of course, it's a child who has to remind all the adults in town to believe in the impossible again.

Perhaps the best part of "The Magician's Elephant" is simply observing Peter's relationships. For a kid who grew up alone under the stern tutelage of an old soldier, he sure is great at building camaraderie with everyone -- from his downstairs neighbors to the fishmonger in the town square. And his most important relationship turns out to be with the elephant he works so hard to rescue. Their bond is the most powerful magic throughout this story.

Watching Peter solve each insurmountable challenge is reminiscent of Japanese folklore about a wise woman who saved an entire village by finding solutions to impossible tasks given by a local lord. To solve one task, she creates a self-playing drum by trapping a bee inside a paper drum. When it tried to escape, bumping into the paper, the drum "played" by itself.

That's the kind of mental wizardry on full display in "The Magician's Elephant," and it's endearing to watch Peter use his relationships and everything he learns in an attempt to earn the elephant's freedom.

The animation pairs well with the amiable tone of this story. Netflix's in-house studio clearly sank a lot of effort into detailed renderings of Baltese, as well as the textures in Peter's clothing and hair. There's a scene of Peter eating stew that'll leave viewers drooling.

What might take a little while to get used to is movement. Watching characters walk and run looks a little stiffer than other 3DCG films from Netflix Animation like "The Sea Beast." It's not inferior, but movement in "The Magician's Elephant" is reminiscent of that presented in "Miraculous: Tales of Ladybug and Cat Noir."

"The Magician's Elephant" is another gem in the crown of Netflix Animation as the studio continues to prove its movies can and will compete with the likes of Disney, Pixar and DreamWorks.

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86 Cast: Noah Jupe, Benedict Wong, Pixie Davies, Sian Clifford, Brian Tyree Henry, Aasif Mandvi, Natasia Demetriou, Miranda Richardson, Mandy Patinkin

Director: Wendy Rogers

Rating: PG

Running time: 1 hour, 39 minutes

Streaming on Netflix


  photo  Orphaned Peter (voice of Noah Jupe), is aided in his search for his lost sister by a beast of burden and the royal family of a war-torn Balkan nation in “The Elephant’s Magician.”

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