The Magician's Elephant

Director: Wendy Rogers
Screenplay: Martin Hynes (based on the novel by Kate DiCamillo)
Stars: Sian Clifford (Gloria Matienne), Pixie Davies (Adele), Natasia Demetriou (Fortune Teller / Narrator), Dawn French (Sister Marie), Brian Tyree Henry (Leo Matienne), Noah Jupe (Peter), Kirby Howell-Baptiste (The Countess), Aasif Mandvi (The King), Mandy Patinkin (Vilna), Miranda Richardson (Madam LeVaughn), Benedict Wong(The Magician)
MPAA Rating: PG
Year of Release: 2023
Country: U.S.
The Magician’s Elephant
The Magician’s Elephant

Wendy Rogers’s computer-animated The Magician’s Elephant is not a particularly faithful adaptation of Kate DiCamillo’s 2009 novel, but that shouldn’t come as much of a surprise given what a slow, thoughtful, interior novel it is. DiCamillo is a writer of wide-ranging talent and interests, and anyone with kids of a certain age will be (or should be) familiar with her works, many of which have already been adapted to screen in some form or fashion (her 2003 novel The Tale of Despereaux was made into a film in 2008, and her 2013 novel Flora & Ulysses was made into a film in 2021 by Disney). Her canny mix of fantasy and humor and genuine dramatic insight makes her books engaging and imminently readable, but they don’t always translate well to the screen, despite her penchant for humorous action and indelible characters.

That is not entirely the case with The Magician’s Elephant, which screenwriter Martin Hynes (The Go-Getter) has adapted by keeping the underlying emotional core, but adding a great deal of action, particularly a middle section involving the protagonist having to accomplish three “impossible” tasks that have no basis in the novel. If the rest of the adaptation weren’t as good as it is, this narrative addition that is so clearly aimed at keeping attention-addled kids engaged would feel like more of an imposition than it does. It also helps that this section adds a character, a humorously self-involved and therefore clueless king voiced by Aasif Mandvi, who is genuinely delightful.

The story takes place in a fictional European city called Baltese, where an adolescent orphan named Peter (Noah Jupe) lives with an old soldier named Vilna Lutz (Mandy Patinkin). Vilna is a little bit crazy and obsessed with soldiering, which is all he knows, but he cares for the boy nonetheless. One day, in fairy-tale fashion, Peter is lured into a fortune teller’s tent where he uses the coin Vilna gave him to buy food to hear his fortune. The fortune teller (Natasia Demetriou) informs him that his younger sister, who he had been told died at birth, is actually alive and that he will find her by following an elephant.

At that point there is no elephant to be found, but that soon changes when a desperate and not particularly talented magician (Benedict Wong) has a trick go wrong during his disastrous stage show and conjures an elephant out of thin air, which promptly falls on and crushes the legs of an elderly woman named Madam LeVaughn (Miranda Richardson), who has the magician thrown in prison. Once he learns of the elephant’s existence, Peter becomes determined that the fortune teller was right and he must somehow free the animal, which is being held by the city’s countess (Kirby Howell-Baptiste). The aforementioned king soon arrives and gives Peter his three impossible tasks, which he (of course) accomplishes with some luck, pluck, and assistance from Leo Matienne (Brian Tyree Henry), a kindly police officer who lives below him with his wife, Gloria (Sian Clifford).

Wendy Rogers, who began her career as a visual effects supervisor in the early 1990s, is making her directorial debut, and she displays a sure hand in guiding the seemingly oddball narrative with good humor and emotional. Parts of it are a bit clunky and the animation feels somewhat cheap at times, especially in the way the characters move, but The Magician’s Elephant is nonetheless an enjoyable diversion that stays true to the essence of DiCamillo’s novel while also forging its own path.

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Overall Rating: (3)

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