I am not the biggest animated movie fan which is actually kind of funny considering I watch so many of them. But to be honest it’s not automatically a conscious choice of mine. Since my two children came into the world my knowledge of animated movies has skyrocketed. So they deserve the thanks for opening me up to the genre. Yet while I do appreciate animated pictures, very few of today’s efforts really connect with me. That’s why it’s such a pleasant surprise when I come across a movie like “The Illusionist”. This has been on my ‘give it a watch’ list ever since it lost the Academy Award to the inferior “Toy Story 3”. It turns out to be another example of my hardheaded procrastination hindering me from seeing a very good film.
“The Illusionist” is a smart and stylish animated feature from French writer and filmmaker Sylvain Chomet. His first feature length animated film, “The Triplets of Belleville”, was highly praised even earning two Oscar nominations. With “The Illusionist” he takes the same hands-on approach. He directs, edits, handles the music, and co-writes the story. But the movie’s real punch comes from its source. The story is taken from an unproduced script from acclaimed filmmaker Jacques Tati and has been called “a personal letter to his estranged eldest daughter“. Others dispute that saying it was written for his other daughter Sophie because “he felt guilty that he spent too long away from his daughter when he was working.” Either way its deeply personal material and Chomet brings that out in ever scene of “The Illusionist”.
The story takes place in 1959 and follows an aging, down-on-his-luck magician who finds his audiences shriveling due to newer and flashier acts. With his venues drying up, he agrees to do a show at a bar on a remote Scottish Island. It’s there that he crosses paths with a young orphan girl named Alice who is convinced his magic is real. She travels with him to Edinburg where he gets a steady gig. He uses the money he makes to put them up in a hotel and to buy Alice gifts. He finds happiness in watching her excitement over a new pair of shoes or a pretty new dress. But soon he and several other traditional acts run into the same problems as before. As his audiences dry up the magician is forced to take several less desirable jobs to keep food on the table and to keep buying gifts for Alice.
In many ways “The Illusionist” is a sad story that deals with a very familiar conflict that was found in almost every Tati film – the cold, loud, impersonal, present versus the content, happy, passionate past. It’s the story of a dying age and dying breed of performers who love their craft and sacrifice for it but are being put out to the pasture by a new generation. This was a trend Tati saw in his day and he addressed it in his very first film “Jour de fete” and throughout his popular Mr. Hulot movies.
But it’s not just the themes that resemble a Tati picture. Chomet and company go even further to make this feel like a movie that could slide right into Jacques Tati’s catalog. Like Tati, he puts a heavy emphasis on visual comedy and sound, but with hardly any dialogue. We are mainly told the story through our eyes with the unintelligible speaking being more of a dictator of tone and attitude. To go even further, the magician is patterned after Tati himself from his postures and mannerisms right up to his lanky frame and facial features. The resemblances are uncanny.
“The Illusionist” is certainly not a traditional animated feature. It’s mature in its storytelling and it doesn’t use popular conventions that we so often see. I think my biggest pleasures were in the beauty and grace in which the story is told and in the historical and cinematic similarities it has with its author. The comedy is often times subtle which I feel works well and the characters each have something important to provide. Then there’s the animation which is beautiful to behold. An argument could be made that “The Illusionist” doesn’t capture the charm and wit of Tati’s films. Personally I’m amazed at how Sylvain Chomet was able to do what he did via an animated picture. Maybe I’ve been wrong about animation after all.