When see we Kate DiCamillo’s name on children’s film, we sit up take notice, and keep an eye and an ear out for themes, “life lessons” and the like.
One of the most popular writers of kid-lit in English, she’s been a popular author to adapt for the screen. Books from “Because of Winn-Dixie” to” “The Tale of Despereaux,” “Flora and Ulysses and “The Tiger Rising” have been made into movies. And the latest adaptation, “The Magician’s Elephant,” was turned into London stage musical before Netflix Animation and Animal Logic took a crack at an animated, non-musical version.
It’s a 2009 book that’s about how limiting life is without imagination, how one should never underestimate human possibilities and how you shouldn’t let skeptics and naysayers limit what you try to do with your life. It has a timely and timeless feel, and visual effects artist turned director Wendy Rogers — she worked in Gotham City, Narnia and “Waterworld” — taps into the most famous trait of DiCamillo’s wordy, illustrated novels. They’re meant to be read aloud, parent to child.
So there’s a fortune-teller/narrator (Natasia Demetriou) to set the story up and explain things every so often along the way.
It’s a gorgeous looking film, and adds more weight to the argument that Netflix isn’t letting Disney, Pixar, Sony or Dreamworks set the animation standard. Del Toro’s “Pinocchio” proved that they’re raising the bar for everybody else.
But I have to say, it’s a somewhat muted film, almost humorless. Like most of DiCamillo’s works translated to the screen, it has her characters and themes and a little charm, but little else going for it.
Peter, voiced by Noah Jupe of “A Quiet Place,” is a teen growing up in the once-enchanted town of Baltese, which lost its sense of magic thanks to sending troops off to “the great foreign war” long ago. It’s a town that’s “stuck,” with no magic or imagination. Even the clouds, “strange” as they are, are the same — day after day.
Peter’s being raised by an old soldier (Mandy Patinkin) who is training him to be a young soldier — discipline, hardship (he’s only allowed to buy old “hard” bread from the baker) and marching are his life.
“What is the world?” old Vilna drills him. “HARD.” Any idea that it isn’t is just “a fairy tale.”
“Where there is comfort, there is innocence. Where there is innocence, there can never be a soldier.”
So, no comfort for you!
But when Peter takes the day’s coin to go out and buy the day’s hard bread and “tiniest fish” for dinner, he gives way to his imagination by paying our narrating fortune teller, who seems to know a lot about him, to answer just one question. He wants to know about this sister he was sure he had. How can he find her?
“Follow the elephant,” she says. The elephant “will lead you to her!”
But elephants are just another item on old Vilna’s list of “impossible” things. “False hope” that there are such things will serve no purpose. But when a clumsy magician (Benedict Wong, kind of funny) conjures one up in the middle of his flailing act in town, it makes the newspaper. Old Vilna’s “False hope!” starts to sound like “Fake News!” The kid wonders if the old man, who assured him that his sister is long dead, ever “lied to me.”
In any event, Peter seeks out the elephant (the magician was jailed for his stunt as the town fears that which it does not know or understand). And with the aid of his palace guard neighbor (Oscar nominee Brian Tyree Henry), he prevents the never-laughs Countess (Kirby Howell-Baptiste) and her advisors from “getting rid of it.” The good time Charlie king (Aasif Mandvi, flip and funny and all alone in his comic efforts) is notified, shows up and takes charge.
But Peter needs the elephant to find his sister. Sure, the joker with the crown says. Do “Three impossible tasks” and you can have it. The tasks are set up and poor Peter must do what no one thinks is possible three times in order to fulfill “my destiny.”
Miranda Richardson voices an older woman “crushed” by the elephant, and determined to make the magician pay with a daily in-jail harangue. Dawn French voices the nun/nurse who, it turns out, took in Peter’s sister long ago.
Mandvi, always good for a few chuckles (he was Uncle Morty on TV’s version of “A Series of Unfortunate Events”), breathes life into his scenes. But one of his king character’s impossible quests for Peter is, of course, to make the Countess who never laughs laugh. The fact that even that scene is a stiff, even by kid-oriented slapstick standards, points at the principal failing of Martin Hynes’ screenplay.
He’s nailed down the messaging. But he’s trapped in the same somber self-serious fairytale that Camillo ordained. A touching moment plays, here and there. The elephant, trapped in this situation and far from its own kind, deserves better than this, Peter comes to realize.
But as that and the other themes and subtexts here aren’t all that serious or profound, a lighter hearted touch was called for and is sorely missed, scene after static, beautifully-animated scene.
Cast: The voices of Noah Jupe, Brian Tyree Henry, Mandy Patinkin, Aasif Mandvi, Natasia Demetriou, Kirby Howell-Baptiste, Miranda Richardson and Benedict Wong
Credits: Directed by Wendy Rogers, scripted by Martin Hynes, based on the novel by Kate DiCamillo. A Mar. 17 Netflix release.
Running time: 1:43`