Review by Adam Donato
Based on the novel by Kate DiCamillo, The Magician’s Elephant is the latest animated feature to land on Netflix. It’s interesting how Netflix has high Oscar hopes for Guillermo Del Toro’s Pinocchio and a few months later, The Magician’s Elephant arrives on the platform as well. Both are based on children’s fantasy books, set during a historical war, and focus on the dream of a young boy who must accomplish impossible feats. The recipe is there, but does The Magician’s Elephant have the creative team to make it a success among the likes of Del Toro’s Pinocchio?
Wendy Rodgers makes her directorial debut with The Magician’s Elephant, having previously only worked in the visual effects department. The cast features some familiar faces, but nobody to write home about. Nothing but love for the genius who casted Benedict Wong as the magician because he is experienced playing a wizard. Brian Tyree Henry and Aasif Mandvi are the other recognizable voices used here. Mandvi is particularly annoying as he plays an irresponsibly eccentric king of this land, who is constantly flaunting his ignorance for those around him. None of the characters really stand out here. In fact, there’s quite a bit of juggling going on as some character threads seem superfluous.
The story here is familiar to the recent Pinocchio adaptation, but obviously doesn’t work to the same degree. The real-world themes about the effects of war on a country’s citizens are not treated with the same amount of weight. Comparing and contrasting The Magician’s Elephant and Pinocchio is unfair to The Magician’s Elephant. In reality, it’s admirable that such a children’s movie would even tread on such dark topics. Pinocchio is arguably more accessible to adult audiences rather than children, but The Magician’s Elephant is clearly more geared towards the young ones. It’s very cutesy and the humor is exclusively for more immature audiences. In the end, the excessive character threads are brought together in a satisfying enough way, even though they reek with cheese. It’s a cute little fairy tale to throw on for children to fall asleep to.
For a straight-to-Netflix animated film, the animation is not that bad. This is likely accredited to the director coming from a visual effects background, having most recently worked on Dreamworks films such as Puss in Boots, Flushed Away, and Shrek. There’s some imagery in the film that cuts deep. One scene features a herd of elephants submerged in water attempting to swim to the top. When one of them can’t keep up, he begins to sink and for those with a fear of drowning, this is an effective sequence. Character design wise, it gives off vibes of trying to emulate stop motion animated characters, which tracks since Flushed Away tried similar tactics. Considering the animation for a throwaway Netflix content was of note, this is a huge win for The Magician’s Elephant.
The target demographic for The Magician’s Elephant is definitely children and there’s nothing here to suggest they won’t enjoy this fairy tale. It’s got good morals and cute characters who are just trying their best to believe in something. The animation is good and there’s some talented people on board. Don’t expect this to get nominated or even be mentioned by anybody above the age of ten, but it’s solid children’s content.
The Magician's Elephant streams on Netflix beginning March 17.