Ever had the feeling that you could do what you thought you couldn’t do? Ever had the feeling that you wanted to become something the world didn’t want you to? Sometimes, we don’t even think about these questions, but the thoughts of self-curiosity and self-exploration resonate with many people, all with different aspirations and goals. However, what does this feel like for someone who’s coming of age in a world that lost its hope? The Magician’s Elephant has that answer and its special take on the original 2009 story is optimistically reinvigorating.
Netflix’s The Magician’s Elephant is an animated adaptation of the original children’s novel of the same name by two-time Newberry Award winning author Kate DiCamillo. On a search for his long-lost sister Adele (Pixie Davies), Peter (Noah Jupe) faces the journey of his life after a fortune teller’s (Natasia Demetriou) prophecy comes to life in the form of a mysterious elephant brought to life by a magician of old (Benedict Wong). Challenged with three impossible tasks, Peter must persevere, in action and in spirit, in hopes to save the elephant from its bond and find his sister in the midst of it all.
This unique take on the story definitely takes it opportunity to create a new perspective on DiCamillo’s original work. The movie’s visuals and world-building blend together wonderfully to establish this contrast between the dim cloudiness of pessimism to the shining, colorful lights of hope. It very much develops its own style reminisce of Blue Sky and LAIKA, meshing pieces of computer-generated realism with artistic expression to create this movie’s world and set pieces. The movie’s music also helped to create this sense of wonderment and optimism, perfectly fitting with the story’s build-up.
In terms of the story, The Magician’s Elephant both adapts from the novel and recreates new events and details, staying true to its central themes while also experimenting with different ideas. Unlike the novel’s three tasks, these parts are taken and transformed to be exciting and terrifying for a younger audience. Peter, of course, still has to take such harrowing tasks from the newly introduced characters: the comedic King (Aasif Mandvi) and the distant Countess (Kirby Howell-Baptiste), who serve superbly as the living contrasts of optimism and pessimism.
Furthermore, the development that Peter and Adele have in their own worlds, supplied with the warming comedy, left me fully satisfied in terms of their direction. Throughout the movie, we get those moments where it almost seems like the two will eventually recognize each other, but with the focus on the elephant’s freedom, it leaves you wanting them to finally reunite in that special moment. As they go on separate arcs, Peter with Leo (Brian Tyree Henry) and Gloria Matienne (Sian Clifford) and Adele with Sister Marie (Dawn French), each side character gets their own dynamic characterization while still centralizing with the main characters. Watching these characters play their own role in impacting Peter and Adele’s journeys was very endearing to me and I have to say this movie handles these new ideas very well.
However, even though this movie does its best to retell an interesting story, there are some aspects that hold it back from its success. On the production side of things, some of the voicework editing felt a little bit compressed and took me out from certain scenes, some of which were important to the story. The editing compression applies to some characters, unnoticeable until the final third of the film, but the performances given by the main cast were still good nonetheless.
As for the story, there are two specific areas where the movie could have improved: the character development of the Magician and the changes to Peter and Adele’s past. Firstly, unlike the book, the Magician’s role in the movie mostly serves to further the plot, mostly sharing comedic moments with Madam LaVaughn (Miranda Richardson) during Peter’s undertaking of the tasks. In the novel, the Magician mostly serves a similar purpose to his film counterpart, but in the movie, he feels mostly reserved without exploring his ambition deeper. Secondly, the change to Peter and Adele’s separation, while it wants to keep the lightheartedness, could have benefitted from playing on the events from the novel, but it still managed to create that dramatic tension needed to propel this re-imagining.
Overall, The Magician’s Elephant is a charming, magical re-imagining of its source material, emphasizing what made the novel special while being mesmerizing in its artistic direction and its unique story changes, which delightfully work. By bringing DiCamillo’s story to life in such an amazing way, this colorfully bright movie is certainly one to enjoy with the family with its enticing world. With this strong and unique animated re-envisioning, we could hopefully see other classics being adapted like with The Magician’s Elephant because this film is a success.
The Magician’s Elephant releases on Netflix on March 17.