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The Magician’s Elephant

Content Caution

The Magician's Elephant 2023 movie


In Theaters


Home Release Date




Paul Asay

Movie Review

It’s raining pretty hard when it’s “raining cats and dogs.” Raining elephants? That’s something else again.

Admittedly, it was just one elephant, and that hardly qualifies as a downpour. But it was one literal elephant. That one elephant weighs about the same as 1.1 billion raindrops (calculating the weight of an average raindrop and an average female elephant), so there’s that. And keep in mind, it didn’t just rain this elephant anywhere. It landed smack-dab on a stage in quaint-but-boring Baltese, a town whose meteorologists never say “partly cloudy with a chance of pachyderms.”

Most folks blame the magician, of course. And they should. He admits that he was trying to do a bit of extra-special magic for his grand finale—something beyond the pull-a-string-of-handkerchiefs-from-my-sleeve sleight of hand. Something that might give Baltese a little life, a little hope. The magician hadn’t intended to conjure an elephant: He was aiming for a bouquet of lilies. But he also admits that he’s a very poor magician.

Still, perhaps the magician was onto something. The elephant has added a bit of life to Baltese. It’s all anyone can talk about, really: Before that fateful magic performance, many doubted whether elephants even existed.

Now that the town has an elephant and all doubt has been cleared away, the big question is what to do with it. (You might call it the literal elephant in the room.)

But for young Peter, the elephant sparked a touch of hope, too.

Peter’s guardian, Vilna Lutz, does not approve of hope. As a veteran of the Great War, he knows that hope is the stuff of fairy tales, and you can’t live on fairy tales. Instead, he and Peter live on old bread and tiny fish—practice, he tells Peter, for all the misery that life is bound to throw at him.

But one afternoon, instead of spending a coin on the afore-mentioned bread and fish, Peter gave it to a mysterious fortune teller. She told him that Peter’s sister, whom Vilna said died at birth, is alive and well. How can Peter find her?

“Follow the elephant,” she told him.

Vilna is incredulous: There are no such things as elephants, he tells Peter. And his sister is most certainly dead.

But the next morning, with the whole town buzzing about the elephant, Peter knows that, sometimes, there’s no such thing as no such thing. And if elephants exist, maybe his sister does, too.

Positive Elements

Vilna is not a bad man, and that becomes more and more obvious as the movie runs along. He is indeed an old soldier, and thus he raised Peter in the way that he thought best. He knows the world can be a cruel place, and he’s teaching Peter how to stand up and face that cruelty like a man.

Outside Baltese, we meet another caregiver—a nun who’s raising a young girl named Adele. That nun, too, has seen the world’s cruelty, and she’s raising Adele within protective walls, both literal and figurative. If Vilna’s default is to bear life’s burdens, the nun’s is to avoid them. Safety is the most important thing. And the nun is going to make sure that Adele is never in danger again.

There’s a place for both Vilna’s philosophy and the nun’s perspective too. To teach children to be strong in the face of obstacles is not wrong. Nor is it wrong to want to protect your children. But the movie stresses that there’s more to life than either approach. A life well-lived, Peter discovers, involves both risk and hope.

In his quest to find his long-lost sister, Peter is helped along by a kindly couple living in the apartment below. They feed him and encourage him. And before long, the childless couple begins to see Peter as almost a surrogate son.

The Magician’s Elephant is filled with good people—albeit people who let their own sorrows and biases cloud their goodness (much as an impenetrable layer of clouds envelops the entire town of Baltese). The story offers a more complex view of human nature, encouraging viewers to look at people in their own lives and approach them with a bit of grace.

One more note: When the story begins, Peter is single-minded in his focus on finding his sister. But as he grows to know the elephant itself, he begins to see that she (we’ll assume that the elephant is a “she”) has a story of her own, and a family of her own, too. And while that comes with some questionable facets (which we’ll get into below), the sacrifices he makes for the elephant are still worth applauding.

Spiritual Elements

Baltese is a place where magic does—or at least used to—exist. In flashback, someone dances near the town’s main fountain, and the water moves in time with the dancer’s movements, the water changing colors. Children zap each other playfully with their magical hands. But when the movie opens, those days are long past.

At first, the magician in The Magician’s Elephant comes across as any top-hatted showman might in our own world. His show is based on magic tricks, not actual magic. But in the grand finale, he unlocks the door to real magic—complete with sparkly hands and whispered incantations. (Those incantations are repeated later.) He casts several other benign-but-misguided spells while in prison. And the whole plot is set in motion by a very in-the-know fortune teller.

We should note that magic and hope are closely aligned in the story (that when we have hope, the world can be a magical place), which could lead to a more metaphorical reading of the magic we see here.

Baltese also seems to be a place where people believe in God, too. Much of the action takes place around Baltese’s impressive cathedral. As mentioned, Adele’s caretaker is apparently a nun who believes both in signs and dreams. A family meal appears to begin with prayer. And Peter’s downstairs neighbors, Leo and Gloria Matienne, discuss what God might intend for them as a family.

The elephant is a character in her own right here, and many characters seem to place her on the same spiritual level as the humans around her. When some wonder whether it would be best to destroy the animal, someone says that it would be “murder.” And when Peter makes a sacrifice for the elephant, he indicates that he doesn’t see his wishes to be “any more important” than the elephant’s. Certainly, the movie believes that keeping elephants in captivity—in either their world or ours—is immoral.

Sexual Content


Violent Content

When the elephant drops onto the stage, she plops squarely on the legs of the elderly Madam LaVaughn. The woman appears to be more surprised than in pain when the elephant’s on top of her, but she spends most of the rest of the movie in a wheelchair, embittered by her injury.

The elephant falls from a pretty significant height, obviously, but she survives the tumble without obvious injury. As the story goes on, though, we learn that she’s not well, and at one point the elephant collapses from illness or sadness. Her eye gets irritated by some garish paint that she’s decorated with, and it nearly sends her into a destructive frenzy. (Soldiers raise their guns to shoot the animal, but they’re prevented from pulling the trigger. The elephant also dreams about being held underwater by a chain.

The king of this kingdom (of which Baltese is a part) orders Peter to complete three “impossible” tasks—two of which are quite life-imperiling. In the first, Peter is forced to fight a ferocious soldier, and that soldier chases after the boy with, clearly, murderous intent. He swings his sword several times at Peter (with the intent of slicing the kid in two), and he runs through a stone wall. He nearly falls from a great height. He does fall once from about 10 feet up, but he survives uninjured.

We see flashbacks to the Great War. The scene is filled with fiery explosions, and at least two buildings are destroyed. We hear that the brother of Baltese’s ruling Countess died in the Great War, and she’s never smiled since.

We learn that Peter’s mother dies during the Great War (though we don’t see how). We hear about other presumed fatalities.

Crude or Profane Language

We hear one use of “oh my God” in the background—barely audible—in one scene.

Drug and Alcohol Content


Other Negative Elements

The elephant sneezes on someone in a disgusting and sticky manner. In flashback, a kid gooses another kid with magic (which prompts the narrator to point out that sometimes magic was used inappropriately in days gone by).

We learn that someone lied (albeit to spare another person pain) and stole a book. Peter uses his and Valna’s dinner money on a fortune instead. (“One day without food, or the rest of your life without knowing,” the fortune teller cajoles.)


When the rest of the city of Baltese doubted the very existence of elephants, Leo Matienne always believed—and he’s naturally elated when one literally lands in town. When he’s pushed to admit that he didn’t know that elephants existed, he admits as much. “But I had strong and unreasonable hopes. And sometimes that’s enough.”

The Magician’s Elephant (based on the 2009 book of the same name by Kate DiCamillo) is predicated on magic and elephants, but its central theme is hope. It’s about how belief itself can sometimes change us and, in some way, change the world around us.

That’s a surprisingly resonant and, I think, relevant message for me. Because my belief in a God who died for us and rose again—something that skeptics would say is “impossible”—gives me the greatest hope of all. Because our God, like the story’s elephant, is absolutely real.

That’s an important element to this elephant—the grounded reality found in this “magical” story. When Peter’s asked to complete three “impossible” tasks, he does so not through magic or wishful thinking, but through logic, daring and by tackling big problems in new ways. He gets a little help from those closest to him, too (as we all should). As Christians, we know that our beliefs are set on a firm foundation, too. And yet, like Peter, it also requires that we take a leap of faith.

The Magician’s Elephant has its issues. You don’t need to worry about bloody violence or wince-worthy profanities, but you do need to navigate animal rights and whispered spells, and certainly many a parent might rightly shy away from the story’s fortune-telling starting point.

But for families who feel like visiting the hope-starved city of Baltese, we might find our visit to be sweet and fun—and even remind us of that greater hope to hold.

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Paul Asay

Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.