An inoffensive albeit empty mystery box, Netflix’s children’s fantasy never reaches the heights it aims for.
For a movie about the power of faith, hope, and belief, The Magician’s Elephant is markedly unsure of itself. Based on the 2009 children’s book, Wendy Rogers’ feature debut creates a visually stunning fantasy world that ends up feeling completely hollow. A modern fairytale, it follows young boy Peter’s journey to find his long-lost sister after a traveling fortune-teller informs him that she’s alive and all he needs to do to be reunited with her is “follow the elephant.” As luck would have it, a magician’s act gone awry has dropped an elephant in the center of town and the king declares that Peter can have it if he performs three impossible tasks.
At first glance, The Magician’s Elephant is a breath of fresh air in the world of animation, where any style outside the dominant Pixar mold can’t help but stand out. Unfortunately, the film sabotages its own dramatic tension at every turn. It mistakes a simple lack of information for mystery, hoping that merely denying the audience crucial pieces of information will create suspense.
For example, when Peter meets the fortune-teller she dramatically declares “She lives!” as if it’s a startling reveal. But in this moment, we literally know next to nothing about Peter. We don’t know who “she” is. We don’t know why Peter would care. It’s a line that could be replaced with anything because in that moment, it means nothing. The true dramatic backstory for Peter’s entire family isn’t given until about two-thirds of the way through the movie, a mistake that drags the entire film down.
It’s all reminiscent of this meme, a reference to the purposely baffling marketing campaign for Death Stranding. The difference here is that this isn’t a marketing campaign, it’s the story itself and for some reason the script feels absolutely terrified to actually tell it.
This is the kind of forced mystery-boxing that’s dragged down every kind of modern show or movie from HBO’s Westworld to The Force Awakens. The trope itself isn’t inherently the problem, but it becomes one when it’s used as a crutch. What it ignores in those instances is that true tension can only be built if we actually care about the people on screen and understand what they want and why they want it.
Noah Jupe (The Undoing, Honey Boy) as Peter gives a sadly disappointing performance that often comes off as wooden. Unfortunately, the stacked supporting cast (Mandy Patinkin, Miranda Richardson, Aasif Mandvi, Benedict Wong) suffers similarly and they blend together into a forgettable mush.
The true highlight of the film is a highly emotional scene where we learn how Peter and his sister were separated. There’s a war, there is chaos and death, and a decision is made to save Peter’s life by stern soldier Vilna (Patinkin) that haunts him to this day. It’s the most moving and best acted scene in the movie, and even so only ends up feeling like a pale shadow of what del Toro did in Pinocchio.
The only point to the film’s credit is that while The Magician’s Elephant’s grasp of narrative structure is maddening, this won’t ultimately be a painful watch for parents. It’s a sweet story that’s beautifully animated and completely inoffensive, if bland, which is far from the worst thing a children’s film can be. The problem is that kids deserve better and there are plenty of artists out there making movies far more worthy of their time and yours.
The Magician’s Elephant premieres on Netflix March 16th.