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Animal Logic has become a rather fascinating studio in the world of VFX and animation. Depending on how familiar you are with their work, their more recent efforts from the last decade will be recognizable to many an animation fan with the theatrical The LEGO Movies, Netflix’s The Sea Beast, and Warner Bros’ DC League of Super-Pets. They have one of the more interesting animation filmographies, and while there are some reasons to worry about why they were bought out by Netflix, if they are able to get the time and money needed to craft experiences like Chris Williams’ The Sea Beast, then I’ll always be rooting for them. Of course, a studio is just one part of the equation of filmmaking, and you need a good team of writers, editors, a director who knows what they are doing, and so on and so forth. So, what does that give us with Netflix and Animal Logic’s first major animated film of 2023? Today’s review will cover The Magician’s Elephant.
The Magician’s Elephant is directed by Wendy Rogers, written by Martin Hynes, and based on the book by Kate DiCamillo. The story follows a young boy named Peter, voiced by Noah Jupe. He is an orphan who believes that he can’t find his missing sister since he lives within a kingdom that has lost metaphorical and literal magic among its people. One day, while in the market, Peter wanders into a tent that is being helmed by a mysterious woman voiced by Natasia Demetriou. She tells Peter that to find his sister, they must follow the elephant. Well, there’s a problem, there are no elephants in sight! In what is a coincidence to our lead, due to an accident caused by a magician voiced by Benedict Wong, an elephant is now within the kingdom walls. The countess of the kingdom would rather not let the elephant go or let it end up in the grasp of Peter, but due to the king, voiced by Aasif Mandvi, having a sense of humor, he offers Peter three challenges to conquer to try and get the elephant that could somehow help him find his sister.
Here is what to expect from this film. If you are expecting a grand epic adventure like Animal Logic’s last film, The Sea Beast, then you will be disappointed. Do not go expecting another big film. It’s a smaller-scale story about a kid trying to overcome impossible odds in a world that has pretty much given up on living in a world that, while full of tough situations, still has magic that gives people hope. Some characters also encounter the commentary about how acts of kindness can do wonders for people who could use the help in finding happiness in a difficult world. It also tackles the theme of characters dealing with regrets from their actions, which pops up quite a lot during the film’s second act. While it might be a smaller-scale story that takes place within one location, the story itself has layers to pull back and reveal the story beats connecting the overall experience together. It definitely feels formatted like a more fairy-tale-driven experience since this is based on the book by the same author that did Tales of Desperaux, so that makes a lot more sense. Like, there is a magician and an elephant that he magically poofs into being, but they play very little part in the story, and while they don’t get too much screen time, they play more metaphorical parts in the plot, while also having their own little histories and arcs that don’t feel out of place. It has some predictable story beats that you can see coming, and some of the characters are forgettable or don’t offer much to the overarching narrative, but the cast is likable enough to make the story compelling as we watch the unfolding of the mystery of the elephant, and the lead’s journey in finding his sister. It mixes its dream-like sequences and realism well, and when it goes full-on dream sequence, that’s when the film’s visuals and storytelling are at their best. The only real part of the narrative that is constantly distracting is the narrator. It feels distracting and doesn’t add much that the visuals couldn’t have told the audience. It feels more aimed at children than their last film’s audience of everyone, and that isn’t a bad thing, but it’s something worth knowing going into this film, depending on what kind of adventure you are wanting to partake in.
The animation is one of the best and weakest parts of the overall package. The stylized human designs look great, and there are a ton of great stylistic touches, like the pillowy spherical clouds that cover the landscape. The human and animal animation also have proper weight and feel as though they aren’t too ‘floaty’. It even has elements that remind me of the more painted look of certain animated films like Puss in Boots: The Last Wish and The Painting. The visual presentation falls flat in some areas due to the smaller budget . The building and cityscape feel flat and rough looking, and not in a thematic way either. While the movements and overall animation look good, there is just something clunky about the overall vibe of the animation that feels like they weren’t able to polish the movements at times. If you have seen animated films that had slightly smaller budgets like The Amazing Maurice, then you will get where I’m coming from. There’s also a lack of lighting and shadow work with the film when it’s doing outside sequences, which may help expand upon why the buildings and the city itself look flat. When they do inside shots at night, they look fine. Though the big flashback sequence that shows the backstory of four of our characters is handled pretty well and obviously got the most focus, the best parts visually are the moments when it goes into the more magical and dream-like sequences, because the art gets to flex more and where you see the best moments on a presentation level. The voice cast is also pretty good. The overall cast includes Brian Tyree Henry, Noah Jupe, Benedict Wong, Pixies Davis, Aasif Mandvi, Cree Summers, Tom Kenny, Mandy Patinkin, Dawn French, Natasia Demetriou, Miranda Richardson, Sian Clifford, and Phil LaMarr to name a few. The musical score is composed by Mark Mothersbaugh, and while it is whimsical and fantastical, the tunes themselves weren’t as memorable as previous soundtracks Mark has worked on in animation.
With it leaning more into its family-friendly audience, The Magician’s Elephant is a good movie in that genre. It isn’t my favorite animated film of the year so far, but of the films I have seen as of two months into 2023, it’s definitely the strongest one released. If you have liked Netflix’s output of feature animated films from the past few years, then there is no excuse for skipping out on this one. It will be hitting Netflix March 17th, and is a magical journey through the power of storytelling in animation. Next time, we shall be diving into some animated films playing at the New York Children International Film Festival. The first film taking flight will be Blue Thermal.
Rating: Go See It!