There is some magic missing from The Magician’s Elephant, an otherwise well-meaning animated tale about family, accomplishing the impossible, and wonderment. Following the great war in the fictional medieval town Baltese, the locals seem dead inside, unmoved even when a nameless sloppy magician (Benedict Wong) accidentally casts a spell that brings forth an elephant instead of the bouquet of lilies he had planned. Making matters worse, the elephant also crushes the legs of an older woman in the audience, which contributes to the magician ending up jailed.
Meanwhile, young orphan Peter (voiced by Noah Jupe) is being trained early by his former soldier guardian Vilna (voiced by Mandy Patinkin), who saved the boy when he was three years old from an explosion during the war that also separated him from his infant sister. Vilna assures Peter that his sister tragically died, although something deep in Peter’s memory tells him she survived and is in the world somewhere. More fascinating is that part of Vilna’s training regimen seems to be stripping individuals of activities and objects that provide happiness and comfort, claiming that one cannot be a fearsome soldier otherwise. This relatively dark subject material for a family film is almost instantaneously discarded for something safer and more friendly.
Directed by visual effects artist turned first-time filmmaker Wendy Rogers (from a screenplay by Martin Hynes and based on the novel by Kate DiCamillo), the more frustrating aspect of The Magician’s Elephant is the stiff and lifeless animation that never conjures up an exciting sense of mystique or majestic set pieces. Perhaps the budget was lower than usual, but even the subpar level of detail feels like a relic of the past. There is a Countess (voiced by Kirby Howell-Baptiste) who doesn’t smile or laugh, is also greatly depressed and unsure how to move forward following the great war, except the filmmakers have gone so far in that direction that if one stares hard enough, it doesn’t even look like she’s animated. The visuals are that dead sometimes.
Once the King (voiced by Aasif Mandvi) gets wind of the elephant’s magical arrival, he saunters into town looking to amuse himself and reclaim the animal, which conflicts with Peter, who has been told by a fortune-teller (Natasia Demetriou) that following the elephant will lead him to his family. This causes the King to give Peter a triathlon of impossible challenges that are mildly entertaining in seeing how the young boy pulls them off. Naturally, his guardian disapproves and would prefer Peter drop this foolish quest, which pushes him into seeking advice and training from downstairs neighbor Captain Leo (voiced by Brian Tyree Henry), a more patient and reasonable man.