The Tone Might Be Off in The Magician’s Elephant, but at Least the Elephant Looks Good

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The wrong tonal choices can be a killer, especially when it comes to making an animated film tailored to kids. Netflix’s adaptation of author Kate DiCamillo’s The Magician’s Elephant makes some fatal tone mistakes in trying to smoosh together comedy, tragedy, childhood wonder and animal exploitation—which clash pretty hard. It’s almost like the studio knew this rather melancholy fairy tale about a town and its people suffering PTSD in the aftermath of a devastating war was kind of a downer. With that in mind, they tasked director Wendy Rogers and screenwriter Martin Hynes to “lighten this one up,” resulting in a film that incongruously ping-pongs between being a silly caper and an exploration of suppressed grief and sadness; a real “must watch” topic for kids. Nothing ever really meshes, giving the movie a split personality that seems doomed to bore viewers, young and old, during the “serious” parts.

The discordant tone problems show up right from the jump by having Natasia Demetriou serve as narrator directed to use only a slightly softened version of Nadja of Antipaxos voice from What We Do in the Shadows. Demetriou will eventually be revealed as a fortune teller later in The Magician’s Elephant, but that doesn’t help much when she is the exposition voice establishing the sad tale of the town of Baltese in a Romanian-esque voice that always feels one breathe away from screaming, “Laszlo!” As it turns out, the town has lost its belief in magic in the aftermath of a terrible war and Demetriou will consistently turn up to narrate the more complex flashbacks, dark set pieces and even some internal character motivations that make up the spine of the story. It’s very clear that she’s the crutch to sorta get the audience through the frequent sad moments. 

Those sad moments essentially come back to Baltese being a bummer of a town to grow up in. A muted, postwar pastel wash blankets the melancholy town. Peter (Noah Jupe) is a war orphan now being raised by Vilnius (Mandy Patinkin), an old, paranoid ex-soldier who wants the young boy to be ready for the next invasion, should it ever come. That means military drills and austerity for the kid, while the old kook watches feral cats “plot” in the alleyways. But Peter is good at evading his guardian, as he’s far more concerned with finding his little sister that he was separated from during the war. He even goes to the aforementioned fortune teller, who cryptically confirms that she does live, and if he follows the elephant, he will find her. 

That leads him to the visiting magician (Benedict Wong) who gets so heckled during his act by the wonderless townspeople that he casts an actual spell, conjuring up a real elephant that falls on a very mean old lady (Miranda Richardson). It’s a highlight moment. But that gets him jailed and the elephant becomes a ward of the state. The goofy King (Aasif Mandvi), who loves to be entertained, gets wind of the marvel and arrives in town to see it for himself. When Peter hears of what happens, he knows the elephant is the key to finding his sister, so he wheedles his way into the castle and promptly asks that the elephant be given to him. The King is delighted to turn that outlandish demand into a game, telling Peter that if he accomplishes three impossible tasks, the elephant will be his. 

From there The Magician’s Elephant fractures into two halves. Peter’s pursuit of the three tasks compose the most dynamic sequences of the film, as his faith in his new elephant friend and what she represents inspires him to outwit the quests in fun ways. But then there’s the other half, which is overstuffed with somber side stories about an agoraphobic nun (Dawn French) raising a moppet of an orphan girl (Pixie Davies), the backstory of the paranoid soldier, the terrible truth of how the elephant was magicked away from her herd, and much, much more. There are plenty of sad stories in animated films that cater to kids, but the way Rogers and Hynes relentlessly crosscut back to the more sorrowful elements ruins any momentum they achieve with the lighter half of the story. 

There’s also an earnestness to The Magician’s Elephant that comes off twee and heavy-handed, especially with Peter and his sister Adele. They are voiced in clipped British accents straight out of Oliver Twist that don’t allow for much warmth or natural emotion. In that void, the score by Mark Mothersbaugh works overtime to make the audience feel something—anything—that the story itself isn’t organically achieving. Aside from Mandvi, clearly the only one having a good time with his line readings, the voice actors are saddled with characters who aren’t having much fun, and it weighs down everything. 

What does work is the elephant and how she is animated. The Magician’s Elephant’s computer animation aesthetic and design style has that plasticky feel common to slicker 3D-esque productions, but the care and attention to the pachyderm transcends. From her skin textures to her soulful eyes, she reads as a beautifully rendered character worth framing a story around. But she’s not a constant fixture, as Peter is the one given agency to free her from her chains. Perhaps if the script pulled away from giving far too much time to the ensemble of side characters and instead gave Peter and the elephant more scenes together, The Magician’s Elephant would have coalesced more emotionally. Instead, there’s just too much complicated plot to follow and too many distracting tangents that bloat the runtime into boring territory. What’s left is a film that may capture a kid’s attention for some sequences, but will elicit a lot of fidgeting—or the audience simply meandering away during the parts that feel too dour or confusing.

Director: Wendy Rogers
Writer: Martin Hynes
Starring: Noah Jupe, Natasia Demetriou, Mandy Patinkin, Aasif Mandvi, Benedict Wong
Release Date: March 17, 2023 (Netflix)

Tara Bennett is a Los Angeles-based writer covering film, television and pop culture for publications such as SFX Magazine, Total Film, SYFY Wire and more. She’s also written books on Sons of Anarchy, Outlander, Fringe, The Story of Marvel Studios and The Art of Avatar: The Way of Water. You can follow her on Twitter @TaraDBennett or Instagram @TaraDBen