THE MAGICIAN’S ELEPHANT – Review by Valerie Kalfrin

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Hope and belief cost nothing, but they give us so much—at the very least, the fuel to make it through one more day when the world has brought us low. The marvelous animated film The Magician’s Elephant understands how we hesitate to embrace them but how vital they are to life.

Now streaming on Netflix, The Magician’s Elephant follows the seemingly impossible quests of Peter (Noah Jupe, A Quiet Place), a 13-year-old boy in a timeless town that forgot how to hope ages ago. The vibrant and diverse city of Baltese literally used to flow with magic, from multicolored waters dancing in the fountain to sprays of tiny golden sparks a person might shoot from their fingers.

Then war came, leaving death, sadness, and thick scoops of stubborn clouds that diffuse any sunlight.

Orphaned as a toddler during the war, Peter now lives with Vilna (Mandy Patinkin, The Good Fight), an old soldier who rescued him. Living in a drab gray apartment on old bread and small fish, Vilna wants to harden Peter so he’ll survive the world’s harshness.

One day in the local marketplace, Peter spots a red tent promising answers to “the most profound and difficult questions,” all for the cost of one coin—his grocery money. He enters the gauzy space with a whopper of a question, a lingering hope. He remembers holding his baby sister after their mother died in childbirth during the war. Is she still alive somewhere?

The fortune teller (Natasia Demetriou) assures him the girl is—and gives him a clue on how to find her: “Follow the elephant.”

That might sound like nonsense … except across town, there’s a magician (Benedict Wong, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness)who desperately wants to show the sad-eyed audience something wondrous. His skills are a bit off, so instead of producing a bouquet of lilies, he teleports a baby elephant through the ceiling, breaking the legs of a regal woman (Miranda Richardson) not inclined to forgive him.

Nevertheless, news of this extraordinary act spreads, energizing Peter, several townsfolk, the king (Aasif Mandvi, Crush), and Adele (Pixie Davies, Mary Poppins Returns), a young orphan on the city’s outskirts. Adele has lived with the orphanage’s nuns since she was a baby. She shares Peter’s golden-brown eyes and unruly brows and, in a smiling coincidence, had been dreaming of elephants.

Making her feature directing debut, longtime visual effects supervisor Wendy Rogers (Puss in Boots and The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian) ties together the story’s disparate threads in a thoroughly satisfying way. She’s helped by a script by Martin Hynes (The Go-Getter, Toy Story 4), the emotive animation, and the talented voice cast.

Adapting the book of the same name by award-winning author Kate DiCamillo, Hynes creates a fun adventure without a flesh-and-bone antagonist but understandable obstacles. On a practical level, there’s the king, who lives to be entertained. Played by Mandvi with an enthusiasm reminiscent of Bob Odenkirk’s superfan from Incredibles 2, he says can’t just give the elephant to Peter to find his sister. The boy must win the elephant through a series of improbable tasks.

The greater obstacle is how the worn-down townsfolk think Peter will fail before he’s even tried. Even Vilna isn’t cruel at heart, just guided by his own fears and disappointments.

Achieving what seems impossible comes down to some creative thinking, support, and hope—which, in a lovely visual, spreads from one person to the next in wispy, shimmering waves.

Peter, like many of the human characters, is all spindly legs and long arms but with a face and eyes that telegraph empathy. Jupe imbues him with a growing sadness but also an optimistic spark that burns brighter as he meets every challenge.

Helping him are his downstairs neighbors, Leo Matienne (Bryan Tyree Henry, an Oscar nominee for Causeway) and his wife, Gloria (Sian Clifford, His Dark Materials). Gloria hesitates to become attached to Peter, having given up on having children. “How will the world ever change if we do not question it?” her husband asks, leading to a touching moment where Gloria visibly softens watching Peter enjoy her stew.

The elephant has a real-world look about her bumpy skin and twisty trunk, and the animators make her every bit as imposing and noble as her mystical entrance. Yet she’s also a child yearning to get back to her family, and we see not just what an elephant dreams but her point of view, identifying Peter as a friend.

Tying together the story’s inspirational threads is the fortune teller, who also acts as a narrator. Demetriou, perhaps best known as the saucy and salty vampire Nadja on the horror-comedy series What We Do in the Shadows, makes her wise, whimsical, funny, and compassionate.

Belief, she notes at one point, is a great and invisible thing: “It comes over us like sleep. We struggle along the edges, fighting it for reasons we cannot name … until, as with sleep, we lose ourselves … and we are restored.”

By the film’s heartfelt climax, I found myself hoping along with the town of Baltese. The Magician’s Elephant casts a beautiful and emotional spell, proving some things are impossible only until you believe they’re not.

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Valerie Kalfrin

Valerie Kalfrin is an award-winning crime journalist turned freelance film writer whose work appears at, In Their Own League, Script, The Hollywood Reporter, and other outlets. Also a screenwriter and script consultant, she’s passionate about challenging stereotypes about gender and disability. Let’s tell better stories and tell stories better.