Netflix’s The Magician’s Elephant follows a boy named Peter who must complete three impossible tasks in order to save an elephant and reunite with his long-lost sister.
Netflix has made more than its fair share of excellent animated films over the years. Some of my favorites include The Little Prince, Klaus, The Willoughbys, the Oscar-nominated The Sea Beast—and now their latest, The Magician’s Elephant.
The story begins simply enough, with a boy who holds out hope that his baby sister survived the war and is still out there somewhere. He happens upon a fortune teller’s tent, who says that in order to find his sister, he must follow the elephant.
Of course, there are no elephants in Baltese—until a magician calls one from the sky during his performance. Having crushed an old woman’s leg, the elephant is chained up while she awaits her fate. Peter asks that the elephant be given over to his care, and the king agrees—if Peter is able to complete three impossible tasks. And thus, our Magician’s Elephant review begins.
The book by the same name was written by Kate DiCamillo, author of Because of Winn-Dixie and The Tale of Despereaux, the latter of which was also adapted into an animated film. The rights for The Magician’s Elephant were snatched up the year it was published, back in 2009, which means its path to release has been a long and arduous one. In all honesty, it seems fitting for this movie.
In the end, it was worth it. The animation studio behind this film, Animal Logic, has worked on Academy Award-winning films such as Happy Feet, The Lego Movie, and Peter Rabbit. I was immediately struck by the detail of the characters, from the delicate hands of the fortune teller to the whiskers on the chin of the magician. It is not difficult to empathize with the emotion in the characters’ eyes, though I will admit that the elephant stole my whole heart, able to relay her thoughts even though she cannot speak.
Good animation is only as good as the voices behind the characters, however, but Netflix’s The Magician’s Elephant doesn’t have to worry on that front, either. The film begins with a narration of events from about the mid-point of the movie, then whisks us back to the beginning for context. The narrator is none other than the fortune teller herself, voiced by Natasia Demetriou from What We Do in the Shadows. It’s hard not to hear Nadja in the fortune teller’s voice, but considering she’s my favorite character on that show, I’m certainly not complaining.
Noah Jupe (A Quiet Place, Ford v. Ferrari) voices Peter, and he lends a young, innocent, but determined air to the boy. This is in contrast to Mandy Patinkin’s Vilna, a veteran soldier who rescued Peter from the war when he was a young child. Vilna is obsessed with being a soldier, and trains Peter to follow in his footsteps. Though he forces the kid to march, watch the comings-and-goings of the local street cats, and eat only the smallest fish and the stalest bread, it is not hard to see this is all done in love.
Downstairs, Brian Tyree Henry (Atlanta, Bullet Train) voices Captain Leo Matienne, who has a penchant for asking, “What if?” His character is full of hope and promise in a city that has long lost its magic and vibrancy due to the war. This entire Magician’s Elephant review would be a lie if I didn’t mention that he was a stand-out character, and one of my favorites because his optimism is infectious. Most of Baltese’s inhabitants are more like Leo’s wife, Gloria, voiced by Sian Clifford (Fleabag, His Dark Materials). She has given up on what-if scenarios, preferring to face the realities of the world with a practical attitude.
For most of the movie, Leo spends his time helping Peter with the boy’s three impossible tasks, but there is a depth of character to the Matiennes that I was not expecting. Gloria implies that they have tried countless times to have children, though it appears it was not meant to be. Leo, ever the optimist, wonders if Peter was brought into their lives for a reason, but Gloria has already closed herself off to that option. It is better to accept your lot in life than experience the disappointment of watching your hope be snatched away. In the world’s current state, it’s hard not to sympathize with Gloria’s attitude.
Peter, who has seen the horrors of war first hand and has lived through Baltese’s cloudy days, is not satisfied with accepting his lot in life without putting up a fight. He’s been told that the only way to find his sister is to follow the magician’s elephant, and so he goes before the Countess and the visiting King in order to ask that they release her into his custody.
The elephant is beautifully animated, especially during the close-up shots of her eyes. She is terrified, not understanding how she came to be surrounded by people instead of back out in the wilderness with her family. Where everyone else sees a potentially dangerous animal, Peter sees beyond her fear to her loneliness. They’re both searching for their families, having been separated without their consent, and it’s easy to see how these two bond so easily.
The elephant, though formidable when afraid, has a kind and gentle nature. She trusts Peter above all else because he is the one who has shown her warmth. We even get to witness her playful side, and it’s hard not to fall in love with such a whimsical creature. I’m not ashamed to use this Magician’s Elephant review to tell you that I cried at least half a dozen times throughout this movie, and that most of them were when the elephant was on the screen. The dreams she has of her lost family are heartbreaking, and it makes Peter’s selflessness in trying to save her even more emotional.
For their part, the Countess and the King are an interesting duo. The Countess, voiced by Kirby Howell-Baptiste (The Good Place, The Sandman), is a benevolent leader, though no one remembers how long it has been since she has last laughed. Her performance is understated and purposeful. She watches the people of her kingdom, and she cares about their well-being, but it’s clear from the start she could do with a little brightness in her life.
On the other hand, the King, voiced by Aasif Mandvi (Evil, A Series of Unfortunate Events), seems to take nothing seriously. He wants to be entertained every day, all day, and that is how Peter finds himself facing three impossible tasks in the hopes of winning the elephant’s freedom. Mandvi does an incredible job of bringing this character to life, and his performance is full of such liveliness and personality. I genuinely thought I would dislike his character for the entirety of the movie, but even he has a role to play, and a perspective on life that is not altogether unwelcome in Baltese.
The other character given room to grow and change was Madam LaVaughn, voiced by Miranda Richardson (Good Omens, Fate: The Winx Saga). Injured in the Great Elephant Incident, she makes it her prime directive to ensure the Magician, voiced by Benedict Wong (Doctor Strange, The Martian), is held responsible and returns the elephant from whence it came. Like Gloria’s character, she focuses on life’s negativities, but also like Gloria, Peter’s story inspires her to find a new perspective. I loved that The Magician’s Elephant didn’t turn Madam LaVaughn into a simple antagonist; the film provided her with enough room to go on her own journey throughout the 110-minute runtime.
The pacing and the structure of the film allows us to get to know all of the main players and see where they came from and watch as they discover where they must go. Before the war, Baltese was a bright, colorful place full of magic. When the war struck, the city’s inhabitants stopped believing, and a permanent layer of clouds kept them all in darkness.
There are a myriad of lessons to talk about in this Magician’s elephant review, though the most prominent is that hope can spread like magic. The horrors of war have kept people isolated and depressed, and it has taken away their dreams for the future. This depression hangs over them like a cloud, much as we see hanging over the city of Baltese throughout the movie.
Gloria and Madam LaVaughn aren’t the only characters who cannot see life’s silver linings. Sister Marie, voiced by Dawn French (Death on the Nile, The Chronicles of Narnia), was the nun who took in Peter’s sister, Adele (Pixie Davies, Mary Poppings Returns, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children), during the war. She is terrified of the world outside the orphanage, pushing strangers away before she ever gives them the chance to prove her misgivings wrong. Despite being a kind-hearted soul, she has allowed her anxiety to turn her cold. And like Gloria’s attitude, I found this to be extremely relatable in today’s climate.
Gloria and Sister Marie are too afraid to question the world, to see it changed, to do something about it. Peter is not. The hope of reuniting with his sister drives him forward, and as a result, he proves that he can do the impossible. The three tasks given to him by the King seem insurmountable, but the way he overcomes each one is truly inspired.
There are so many tiny moments I wasn’t able to fit into this Magician’s Elephant review—the fortune teller making sure Peter asks the right question, the vulnerability of the elephant when she’s covered in paint and presented to the King for the first time, when Adele and Peter’s first meeting has them acting like siblings even though they don’t yet know the truth about their relationship.
But it’s the big moments—the larger lessons—that made me fall in love with the film. The magician saw that the town no longer believed in magic, and all he wanted to do was restore their faith. As Peter successfully navigates each impossible task, the city of Baltese remembers what it felt like to dream of a better future. They collectively shook off the shadows that had gathered around their shoulders, allowing the brightness of the sun to lead them down a path where anything is possible.
‘The Magician’s Elephant’ is now streaming on Netflix
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