Chatbots and algorithmically created art are the hot topics of the day, so it feels only natural that Netflix’s latest animated film feels like it was created by a computer system that has been running every kid’s movie since 1998. The wizard’s elephant isn’t all bad, but relying on run-of-the-mill messages about “achieving the impossible” deflates everything else, which is destined to fade from memory by the next release date.
Based on Kate DiCamillo’s novel of the same name, The wizard’s elephant is part wish-fulfillment, part post-war reconciliation story. However, that description might leave you feeling like there’s a lot more to the movie than it actually does, as the whole movie really has the same tactility as a five-year-old’s bedtime story (it doesn’t help that the animation style is cribbed from much more robust studios). Beginning with a deluge of exposé, we’re told that Peter (Noah Jupe) is an orphan being raised by a grizzly war veteran named Vilna (Mandy Patinkin, in a distinctly thick and completely unwarranted Russian dialect). The two live in the fictional land of Baltese, which at one point was the sort of mystical town where everyone had some degree of magical ability. But, as the narrator tells us (Natasia Demtriou, who also plays the mysterious soothsayer), the “Great Foreign War” cast a permanent wet blanket over the city’s majesty.
Peter has grown up believing that his parents and younger sister, Adel (Pixie Davies), were all killed in the Great Foreign War, but one day he happens to meet the fortune teller in a large bright red tent in the middle of the town square. , who tells him that his sister is indeed alive. To track her down, the fortune teller ominously tells Peter to “follow the elephant”, immediately provoking consternation and disbelief. “There are no elephants!” exclaims Peter, as does his foster father Vilna, who insists that the boy stop believing in impossible things in order to become a soldier. The next day, a traveling magician (Benedict Wong) tries to perform for the town, but his poor skills accidentally summon a huge elephant from the sky. Believing the animal to be proof of his sister’s existence, Peter decides to win the elephant out of captivity. To do this, he must complete “three impossible tasks” set by the childish king of Baltese (Aasif Mandvi), who is motivated only by the irritable desire for constant entertainment. With the encouragement of his downstairs neighbor (Brian Tyree Henry), Peter agrees to the tasks, which prove not so much impossible as slightly clumsy, and the rest is up to you.
The wizard’s elephant is not a complicated film, and its obvious didacticism is, on some level, to be expected. This is a kid’s movie and so there’s a solid commitment to lean storytelling and an admirable diversity among the talented voice cast. It therefore seems strange that Wong and Monthvi’s characters are both drawn with white avatars, since the actors are Asian and Indian, respectively, which are really different, better representations, such as interracial pairing. But the movie’s bigger flaw is embedded in its own DNA. The wizard’s daughter wants you to take a message away from defying the odds, but whatever is impossible to beat a hefty soldier with a fairytale or use a parachute to jump off a roof, or make a traumatized Countess (Kirby Howell-Baptiste) laugh? The longer the movie hammers home such platitudes to beat the odds, the more it feels entangled in mediocrity. Because magic is impossible and so is the revival of deceased relatives. If the message is that believing is enough to accomplish a task like find a map, then most of it feels like sloppy writing and not real cheer. In the end, the film eschews the book’s more poignant and interesting plot point about post-war family reconciliation for one about the vague realization of former “impossible” things, but the decision to do so doesn’t endear it to younger audiences so much as patronizes it. .