One of my favorite movie monologues is given by Morgan Freeman at the end of “Shawshank Redemption.” It is a manifesto about hope and it never fails to stir a bit of the same in my cynical heart. I love stories about the promise of hope precisely because it can be difficult for me to muster it up on my own. One of the best sources for hopeful movies can be found in media for kids, so this week I turned to Wendy Rogers’ “The Magician’s Elephant,” currently streaming on Netflix.
Peter (Noah Jupe) is an orphan who lives with Vilna Lutz (Mandy Patinkin), a disabled veteran who rescued him during an attack on their town. Baltese is a small village that was once filled with magic, but war and poverty have left it rather hopeless. One day, when Peter is in the market, he finds a fortune teller (Natasia Demetriou) who tells him to “follow the elephant” to find his long-lost sister.
When a magician (Benedict Wong) summons an elephant from thin air, it causes chaos in Baltese, and is imprisoned in the castle. In order for Peter to free it and find his sister, the king (Aasif Mandvi) insists that he first perform three impossible tasks.
This was a lovely little film. Based on the novel by Kate DiCamillo (author of “Because of Winn-Dixie”), it explores themes of family and hope. What does it mean for a community to lose its magic and how do they find it again?
I’m a sucker for interesting, stylized animation, and that’s what we get in this. Moving away from realism into something a bit more fanciful adds to the sense of wonder for me. Because it is a story about the loss of hope, it is more muted than a lot of other films for children, but it is nevertheless charming, and I think it would still be engaging for kids even without saturating the screen in vibrant color.
The voice acting is good. Jupe continues to impress me as a young actor, and he injects plenty of pathos into his performance. Patinkin was great as the gruff old soldier, but Mandvi as the king felt like the stand out performance to me.
Where this movie really shines, though, is in its story. While most elements are rather predictable, it still managed to have enough depth in the themes to keep me engaged throughout. I am happy that a number of movies for kids are exploring slightly more complex themes, giving kids access to something a little deeper than mere entertainment.
One might not think that children need messages of hope in their films. After all, life hasn’t had a chance to really knock it out of them yet. And still, any opportunity to create a world where more people can look for magic and find the possible in the impossible is one I want to live in. I’ll take it wherever I can find it.
ALISE CHAFFINS is a Morgantown writer who loves movies and sharing her opinions. She reviews a movie from a streaming service every Saturday and one newly in theaters every Sunday. Find more at MacGuffin or Meaning on Substack.