The Magician’s Elephant Director, Producer, and Novelist Discuss Their New Netflix Film


Animation is cinema. Animation is not a genre,” said filmmaker Guillermo del Toro during his Oscar acceptance speech for Pinocchio. And now, coming to Netflix on March 17 is a new animated offering. The Magician’s Elephant is based on Newbery Award-winning author Kate DiCamillo’s classic novel. The fairytale-like adventure follows young Peter (voiced by Noah Jupe), who is searching for his long-lost sister and crosses paths with a fortune-teller in the market square. He wants to find out if his sister is still alive, and the answer — that he must follow a mysterious elephant — sets Peter off on a remarkable journey to complete three seemingly impossible tasks that magically change the face of his town forever.

We recently caught up with the folks who built the story and screen adaptation from the ground up: director Wendy Rogers, producer Julia Pistor, and novelist DiCamillo. They dished on the talented voice cast and their other projects in the works.

Bringing a Novel to Life on the Big Screen

MW: Kate, how did you come up with such a cool, unique story? How did it all start in terms of envisioning your original novel?

Kate DiCamillo: Sometimes when I say this to kids, they think this literally happened — but I saw very clearly this magician, it was almost as if he were standing in front of me. And he was kind of like, you know, greasy-haired, just a washed-up magician. And he had spent his whole life doing these half-baked magic tricks, and he wanted to do real magic. And so that was the very first thing that happened, I reached into my purse to get a notebook out to write down the description of this magician. And I saw on the notebook, that I was going to give to a friend as a gift, it had an elephant on it. And I thought, “Oh, that’s what the magician is going to do. He’s going to conjure a live element. It’s going to come through the roof of the Opera House.” So that was where it started. It’s funny because as we’ve been doing this, you talk about following the characters. And that’s what I did with this book, Peter is supposed to follow the elephant, I followed the elephant, and the elephant led me to all the other characters.

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MW: Wendy, in directing the film, were you inspired by any past animated films or anything you’ve done in the past?

Wendy Rogers: Interestingly, the inspiration for the film really came from the characters in the world that was created. So it’s really about telling this story. And stylistically, it’s about this world. I wanted the world to feel very physically grounded so that we had a base that the magic and surreal magical realism could play against the characters themselves, you know, as stylized the world is, stylized for it to feel richly layered and diverse. And you always look at a lot of other films and sort of take inspiration. Like for magical realism, looking at the kinds of Amélie and Paddington, some of those kinds of things. You look at a lot of things, but you follow the truth of the characters, and they tell you where it needs to go.

MW: Julia, going back to the origins of this film project, what was it about The Magician’s Elephant that made you want to bring the novel to life on screen?

Julia Pistor: loved the story, I loved that it was an ensemble of eclectic, different people that start off separate and, by the end of the film, have created a new family, which is really powerful for me. And I love the kind of quirky comedy and the potential for world-building. And I love just the theme of the power of “what if?” And the power of empathy and compassion, and the grit and determination in Peter as a sort of an aspirational character, I was just like, “It’s really cool, and we can get some really cool people to make the movie.” And by the way, I’m gonna give a shoutout to the cool Wendy Rogers. But we also have the production designer who did all of the Kung Fu Panda movies. We have our Bob Fisher, who cut Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. I mean, we put together a team of people that all just really responded to the adventure in the project, as well as the really deep heart.

Working With Bryan Tyree Henry

Candlewick Press

MW: What was it like working with Brian Tyree Henry on this project?

Rogers: Well, he’s amazing and just brings the incredible curiosity and kindness to life in Leo. I mean, he’s, he’s just amazing — and I have never met him; all of our records were done via Zoom because we were in COVID. He’s just so incredibly talented and just such a lovely, lovely person.

Pistor: We’re such fans of his that it’s almost that Leo was kind of created around him. He was the first person we went to for the film because he’s such a phenomenal actor. We’ve watched all of his shows as well, you know, he’s a thespian.

Rogers: Yeah, and the control that he has, his voice, the precision. And so kind.

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MW: Is there anything you guys are working on that you’d like to share?

DiCamillo: I’ve been working on fairytales, and I’ll have the first of those fairy tales coming this fall. It seemed like a good time for fairy tales. This movie is kind of a very fairytale and fable… Wendy [Rogers] said in a previous interview… when creating that world that [your characters are] in, you looked for imperfections. And that’s part of why this movie I think is so visually pleasing, is because it has that real-world quality of, it is an imperfect world. And it’s got the overlay of magic, and it just speaks to us without us even really being aware of what’s going on.

Pistor: And [Wendy and I are] working on things that are really fun, expansive, funny, world-building. It’s exciting to work together again.

MW: Kate, having watched your novel come to life on the big screen, what was your favorite part of the movie?

DiCamillo: I have a couple of really favorite moments, but one is so tiny that you could almost miss it. But to me, it captures the whole film: It’s when Peter is sitting with Leo and Gloria at the table, and she’s feeding him. And he asked what it is that he’s eating, and she answers and says it’s stew. And that one word, she imbues with all of this understanding of how he has been deprived, and being able to connect. And it just moves me.

The Magic Elephant comes to us from Netflix.

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