Pixar’s latest animated offering manages, in the space of its opening five minutes, to essay a more rewarding and credibly convincing blend of magic in the modern world than J K Rowling managed in seven books and ten movies of her quasi-fascist wizarding world. Here, magic doesn’t hide in the shadows creating a parallel hidden world where slavery and rigid class systems can be perpetuated ad infinitum. Instead, magic gradually faded away as technology competed with and eventually usurped its purpose.
Why cast a spell when you can flick a switch? What reason is there to spend years of practice to master the recitation of an incantation when you can just push a button? It’s a fascinating allegory for today’s increasingly convenience-orientated world where expertise and craftsmanship and skill are eroded and devalued in the face of increasing automated convenience. It’s a timeless and timely message and so it’s something of a curiosity that it’s not even the main theme of the movie.
When Ian, a young, shy Elf, turns sixteen his mother gives him a present from his late father, who died when he was very young. The gift is a magical staff, a special gemstone, and a letter describing a visitation spell that can resurrect their father for a single day. When the spell goes wrong and only materialises the lower half of their father, the brothers must embark on a quest to find a replacement phoenix gem and complete the spell before the sun sets.
There’s such a rich world created, albeit one which owes more to Tolkein and Peter Jackson (and occasionally Lucas and Spielberg) more than Rowling it feels a little wasteful for it to be used to tell a surprisingly conventional coming-of-age story, albeit one that amusing plays out like a “Weekend At Baldur’s”. There are, of course, plenty of clever little flourishes and there’s an irony in Disney releasing a movie which riffs critically on the commoditisation of history and culture.
In the end, it’s another entry in the ledger of ‘lesser Pixar’ – which is still head and shoulders above most of their animated rivals – and despite its weaknesses, what began with a set up more gratifying than Potter ends with a finale infinitely more rewarding than “Game Of Thrones”.