Award-winning children’s author Kate DiCamillo is the creator of such works as Because of Winn-Dixie, The Tale of Despereaux, Flora & Ulysses, and The Tiger Rising. While she’s also written several others, these four are particularly notable as they’ve each been adapted into theatrical releases with the last two coming available one a year for the last two years. Going for the hat trick, DiCamillo’s 2009 book The Magician’s Elephant, illustrated by Yoko Tanaka, is slated for release on Netflix on March 17th, directed by first-time feature director Wendy Rogers and adapted by Martin Hynes (Toy Story 4). In a world which seems constantly stripped of its magic through cynicism and fear, The Magician’s Elephant reminds that things are only impossible until they’re possible. Or, put another way, it prompts us to consider the power of two words: What if.
In the town of Baltese, magic is an everyday occurrence. Or, it was, until war came and, upon the ending, clouds moved in to block the sun. It’s gotten to the point where believing in anything is riskier that stepping foot on the battlefield. But there is one young boy with an irrepressible hope, Peter (voiced by Noah Jupe), who refuses to give up on the idea that his younger sister lives. It’s a belief that only grows stronger when a mysterious fortune teller (Natasia Demetriou) gives him the answer to a most important question — “How can I find my sister?” — with the words “follow the elephant.” What malarkey, what ridiculousness, what childishness is this as there are no elephants in all of Baltese? That is, until a performance by a visiting magician (Benedict “Wongers” Wong) doesn’t go as planned and an elephant materializes before the concert hall audience. If the magician can conjure an elephant, then perhaps his sister lives — it depends on how much you believe.
The Magician’s Elephant (the film) is one of those films which possesses a certain lightness, so that when it begins, one presumes little more than fluff will follow. That the film begins in media res only to jump backward as a narrator offers a glib “how did we get here?”-like remark and then we hear about the history of Baltese suggests that we’re in for more tell than show. Delightfully, this is not that kind of story with this opening moment being the only instance of such simple storytelling, opting to level things up at it goes. For instance, in the sequence when Peter meets the fortune teller, she cuts him off each time he goes to ask a question. Why? Because it costs one coin to ask one question and Peter is too excited, too nervous, too preoccupied to understand how much is riding on getting the question formed properly versus thinking without thought. It’s a silly scene, one which offers a few laughs, if not at least a smile, but it also sets a tone for what’s to come. If one rushes to presumption, if one acts before thinking, then all hope is lost. But if one is patient, if one relaxes, if one focuses before taking action, then the right answer presents itself.
With the right answer comes several challenges, this is a children’s adventure after all, and each one is handled with a surprising deftness as each one ties directly into the larger themes of wonder, magic, and belief. As one expects, the solutions to some riddles come in the form of information Peter’s received, but the execution is what elicits an emotional reaction from the audience. There’s joy and astonishment attached to each of the obstacles Peter must overcome, leading to one character reminding the in-film characters (as well as us) that no one should be astonished, and yet we are. A mixture of indomitable will and strength borne of focused belief, Peter manages to face his challenges with the maturity of a child who doesn’t know what failure looks like. It’s not that he’s lived some kind of charmed life, he very much hasn’t (we’ll get to this shortly), it’s that he possesses the sense that his sister, his only living relative, lives and, if the fortune teller is right, the elephant is the key to finding her. The thing he wants most in the world is at his finger-tips, he need only maintain the constitution required to get through. Luckily, in part to the zippiness of Hynes’s script and Jupe’s performance, not only does the viewing audience (us) come to believe in him, but so do the people of Baltese. This bolsters an underlying message regarding the infectious nature of sorrow and the power of happiness.
At no point in the film is Baltese location-locked, meaning the audience isn’t entirely sure where it’s located. Based on accents and architecture, there’s certainly a European vibe to the town and its citizenry. But the location isn’t specified and “the enemy” from the war is never identified, only that there were terrible loses and that the country, as a whole, has recovered even if segments haven’t moved on. It’s here that Elephant truly surprises, exploring the weight of war that’s not particularly common in family films. According to original book publisher Candlewick Press, Elephant is rated for children 8 – 12 years of age, right about the time that readers may be more open to discussing the complexities of the world. As such, the film neither avoids the subject nor presses too deeply, but finds the elegant middle in which the grey exists. This middle ground allows the film to explore loss, grief, survivor’s guilt, and how sometimes believing in anything, even magic, is a luxury one cannot afford to care for when life experience teaches that hardening one’s self may be the only way to make it through each day to see the next. Even the clouds that cover the sky — still and indiscernible, save for their opaque roundness — are like Band-Aid, appearing when the town was wounded, but remaining long-past when the healing was complete. This also means that the opposite is true, allowing the film, in a very unsaccharine way, to proclaim that possessing a sense of wonder is also healing. In the vein of other children’s stories where the adventure of one becomes the journey of many, Elephant navigates the interconnectedness of Peter and the people of Baltese so that the bonds that connect them become stronger than ever.
Though Rogers is a first-time feature director, she’s got experience working in the visual effects department on productions like Puss in Boots (2011), Flushed Away (2006), Shrek (2001), and many others. Her time working on those projects clearly was spent observing the way in which these animated tales come together as Elephant only feels like an obvious children’s picture in the opening. The rest of it is a playground in which the incredible cast (Jupe, Demetriou, Wong, Brian Tyree Henry (Godzilla vs. Kong), Kirby Howell-Baptiste (Cruella), Aasif Mandvi (Spider-Man 2), Mandy Patinkin (The Princess Bride), Miranda Richardson (Sleepy Hollow)) appear free to breathe life into the 3D animated world. So much so that one tends to forget it’s animated as they become swept up in the emotionality of the tale. But it is animated, allowing it to be just a little more reality-bending, a little more risky, and a little more fun. Why? Because it understands that in order to get to the right answer, one must be patient and thoughtful to ask the right question. In that regard, it asks a simple “What if?” and the heart-warming answer is “Yes.”
Available on Netflix March 17th, 2023.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.