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The Magician's Elephant Review

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The Magician's Elephant opens in select theaters on March 10, 2023, and will stream on Netflix on March 17, 2023.


There’s something endearing about a family-friendly animated film that uses a measured approach to storytelling. Most – including the most popular Disney and Pixar movies – tend to lean on slapstick humor, talking animals, and/or wildly imaginative action sequences to appeal to as wide an audience as possible. This sort of approach certainly has its charms, though it does make quaint movies like Netflix’s The Magician’s Elephant feel novel in comparison.

Based on Kate DiCamillo’s popular book, The Magician’s Elephant depicts what happens when the belief that “anything is possible” is eroded by the harshness of reality. It’s set in a town where the effects of war have produced citizens that are either outright paralyzed by fear or hopeful, but still timid when it comes to pursuing any meaningful endeavors outside of their comfort zone. This creates an interesting dichotomy between the main characters. As they go about dealing with an implausible situation involving the sudden appearance of an elephant, their interactions with one another allude to the varying ways people cope with grief. These weighty details are condensed to a degree and presented in a manner that never overwhelms. As such, the positive messaging about pursuing one's hopes and dreams is made readily apparent.

The Magician’s Elephant spends much of its hour and 40-minute runtime building towards this goal, sometimes at the expense of developing the more entertaining aspects of its plot. There seems to be little room for humor, standout characters, or tense situations that would adhere to overarching themes – a few notable flashbacks notwithstanding. Some of this has to do with the straightforward nature of the story: while there isn’t a wasted moment, which in turn produces seamless transitions from start to finish, this style makes its inevitable outcome extremely predictable.

Its singular focus feels fresh when compared to other recent animated films.


That’s not to say that the plot isn’t compelling. On the contrary, its singular focus feels fresh when compared to other recent animated films. That freshness, however, doesn’t completely insulate The Magician’s Elephant from appearing more mundane than it actually is, especially to young children who are accustomed to a bit more flamboyance.

Other aspects work in its favor. This can be seen in the animation, where the mostly muted color palette, almost claylike characters, and overall whimsical vibe feel thematically appropriate. The same can be said of the cast, initially shown through the differing personalities of an orphan named Peter (Noah Jupe) and his guardian Vilna (Mandy Patinkin). Jupe does a solid job showcasing Peter’s enthusiastic demeanor, and his can-do attitude and willingness to try new things act as a stark contrast to Vilna’s extremely pessimistic views, which are a result of his trauma-filled past as a soldier and drive his actions to an absurd degree. Patinkin sells it though; the pain in his voice reflects a strong desire to safeguard Peter against any perceived threat.

Mandy Patinkin sells it.


Benedict Wong effectively plays The Magician as perplexed at how cynical everyone has become. He often sounds defeated and annoyed with the state of the town. Brian Tyree Henry’s Leo, on the other hand, is more optimistic than most. As the captain of the palace guards, one would expect him to be a rigid individual, but Henry’s portrayal is more akin to an encouraging uncle. Though he can sound cheesy at times, his lines are always delivered with a warmth that lends credence to the nurturing aspects of his character.

The Magician's Elephant Images

Meanwhile, Aasif Mandvi’s energetic musings as The King are balanced by Kirby Howell-Baptiste’s submissive (and nearly mute) depiction of The Countess. Essentially, everyone either reinforces a specific coping mechanism or the willingness to improve one’s surroundings. This reflects the plot's important messaging about how grief can hinder a person's ability to move on as well as the benefits of differing perspectives. While it's healthy to grieve, one shouldn't let it consume every aspect of their life.

Verdict

Netflix’s The Magician’s Elephant isn’t as flamboyant as recently released family-friendly animation. This does, at times, limit its appeal. The absence of comedic moments and any sense of adventure, which is mostly subdued by a whimsical yet predictable plot, could potentially turn young viewers off early on. That said, it still manages to entertain thanks to a relatable cast of characters and the emphasis placed on presenting its positive messaging in an easily digestible fashion.

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