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A magician’s trick goes wrong and an elephant falls from the ceiling. A secret is hidden in a lie. A mysterious fortune teller knows the answers to “the most profound and difficult questions.” And a king who cares only for amusement challenges a boy to perform three impossible tasks.
“The Magician’s Elephant” is based on a book by two-time Newbery Award winner Kate DiCamillo, whose work was well described by novelist Ann Patchett: stories that “twist in ways you never see coming and do not shy away from despair or joy or strangeness.” Both DiCamillo’s fantasy and more realistic books include the basics we find in other stories for children, young people who must solve problems on their own, a connection with an animal, the importance of hope, and a sometimes-unexpected sense of community. But she adds layers of complexity and compassion to those elements. Her stories have endings that can only be considered happy but are not always resolved as simply as we might imagine. It is significant that at several key points in this film, we literally see through the eyes of some of the characters, including the elephant.
The story's center is an orphan named Peter (Noah Jupe). He is being raised by a disabled former soldier (Mandy Patinkin as Vilna), who treats Peter as a recruit, making him march and teaching him that life is all hardship and danger.
They live in Baltese, a once peaceful town filled with magic. But since a recent war, everything is drab, and a perpetual cloud cover blocks out the sun. One day, a mysterious red tent appears, and inside is a fortune teller (Natasia Demetriou, also the film’s wry narrator). Peter learns his sister, the one Vila said had died, is alive and that to find her, he must ... follow the elephant.
It seems impossible because there are no elephants in Baltese. That is until an inept magician (Benedict Wong) somehow brings an elephant crashing through the theater ceiling, falling on the legs of a wealthy older woman (Miranda Richardson). Some Baltesians want to destroy the elephant, but the local authority is a countess (Kirby Howell-Baptiste) who wants to keep it and invites Peter to be its caretaker. Peter refuses because he wants the elephant to lead him to his sister. The king (Aasif Mandvi), who likes to be “never not entertained,” says Peter can take the elephant if he can complete three impossible tasks in three days.
The voice talent is excellent, especially Brian Tyree Henry as Peter's sympathetic neighbor and Mandvi as the high-spirited king (and the only character with an American accent). First-time director Wendy Rogers’ background as a visual effects supervisor in films like “Flushed Away” and the original “Puss in Boots” has a strong foundation for dynamic visual storytelling and crafts an exciting chase scene for that first impossible task and some camera angles that add to the excitement. The human characters are fairly standard, but the title pachyderm is designed with enough realism to bring emotional and believable physical weight to the story.
We literally see through the elephant’s eyes, not the typical point of view shot but one circumscribed by the shape of the eye to remind us that what we are seeing is the perspective of another creature. We also see the elephant’s memory of being in the wild with the herd. We do not know her name, but she knows it, and the other elephants do. Kate DiCamillo (and screenwriter Martin Hynes of “Toy Story 4”) gently explore layers that are often overlooked in stories for children. Peter admits he is not sure how to accept help. The magician has to acknowledge the harm that he caused, even if it was not intentional. As the humans debate what to do with the elephant, we begin to understand that it should not be decided by what they want.
Stories for children often emphasize courage or teamwork, being yourself, following dreams, or the importance of friends and family. What “The Magician’s Elephant” adds to that is something rare in films for any age: how to think through problems. From the encounter with the fortune teller, who gently guides Peter to make sure he shapes his one question to get the most helpful response to the lessons he learns about accepting help, about learning from failure, about “what if?” as a path to re-framing the question, and, most of all, about factoring in the needs of others, we see all of the elements that go into finding solutions, even if they are not the solution you thought you were aiming for. That theme is reflected in the choices made by the other characters as well, which makes the conclusion as satisfying to us as it is to them.
Now playing on Netflix.
Noah Jupe as Peter (voice)
Mandy Patinkin as Vilna (voice)
Natasia Demetriou as (voice)
Miranda Richardson as (voice)
Pixie Davies as Adel (voice)
Dawn French as (voice)
Benedict Wong as The Magician (voice)
Aasif Mandvi as The King (voice)
Sian Clifford as (voice)
Brian Tyree Henry as (voice)
Cree Summer as (voice)
Lorraine Toussaint as (voice)
Kirby Howell-Baptiste as The Countess (voice)