REVIEW: “The Illusionist”

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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”.

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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.

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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.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

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32 thoughts on “REVIEW: “The Illusionist”

    • Thanks! It’s beautiful to look at, no doubt. But as a huge fan of Jacques Tati I found the movie brilliantly captured his past work in an animated world. That’s what really blew me away. Great film!

    • Yep. It was based on a script from him and the main character was based in Tati’s physical likeness. Check out the Tati films Mon Oncle or Mr. Hulot’s Holiday. Tati stars in both and you’ll instantly notice the similarities in both appearance and mannerisms. It’s amazing how well The Illusionist captures it.

  1. I have not even heard of this, but now it is my turn to admit something. I enjoy an animation (even the cartoon drawing looking ones), truly I do, but getting me to sit down and watch them is the equivalent of forcibly yanking my teeth from my jaw. Except if it is Toy Story. I cannot resist Toy Story.

    • I’m with you. I’m just not a big animated film fan. But this really connected with me mainly due to how wonderfully it connected to Jacques Tati, an older French director I truly loved. It’s vastly different from most animated pictures. You should give it a shot.

  2. Wow, Keith, sad to hear you’re not a fan of animated movies. I know, unfortunately, that they’re often the domain of kids movies nowadays, but they can still be a lot of fun!

    Meanwhile, glad you liked this though. It’s definitely a sweet film. I even bought it on Blu after I watched it! 😀

    • You know, I would like them more if they all didn’t seem to follow the same formula these days. It’s not that I’m opposed to animated films. It’s just so many lack that originality that separates them from the others. This one one me over for its beautiful style but also for its connection to a classic French director who I really love.

      Now there have been some recent animated movies that I’ve liked. Despicable Me was a hoot! I’ve also really enjoyed what I’ve seen of Wall-E. I also like Up, At least the first half of it. So there are some out there that I do like. I guess I’m just not as big of a fan as most people are.

      • Well, the ones you’ve listed there are a couple of the best. Despicable Me 2 is coming out in a few weeks, you should give that one a shot! I know I’m looking forward to it! 😀

      • In definitely watching Despicable Me 2. Actually watched the first one twice in the theater. Already have a ‘wife and kids’ date scheduled for it!

    • It’s a real treat. If your familiar with Jacques Tati’s work you’ll really appreciate it even more. Such a grey tribute. I’d love to hear your thoughts on it.

      • It’s actually based on a short story that Tati wrote in 1956. Tati didn’t make many films but I loved why he did. He was known to star and direct his pictures. His most famous character was Mr. Hulot. You can find reviews of Mon Oncle and Mr. Hulot’s Holiday on my site if you’re interested. Tati died in 1982 with only six movies to his credit. But they have such a cool and interesting style to them.

        The Illusionist is an animated homage of sorts to Tati’s Hulot character and his style of filmmaking. It really struck a chord with me.

    • Oh I couldn’t agree more and I can’t believe it took me so long to get around to seeing it. I saw it for the first time last year and it blew me away.

  3. Very nice review. This is such a wonderful movie. It’s been a while since I last saw it though, so I should probably revisit it soon. We could all use a little Tati every once in a while. 🙂

    Animation is can be formulaic and often only caters to children, but there are some great exceptions that I really love. You should look into seeing “Mary and Max.” It’s excellent.

  4. Wow! So French style animation and such beautiful animation. However, if its anything I learned, its usually not very lighthearted. These animations always get a bit dark, even in comedy, its a bit more dark humor. I’m definitely looking this one up 🙂 Awesome review Keith!

    • It does have a slightly darker tone and I would say the subject matter does lean more towards adults. But the humor is there and what really got me was the heart. Plus I love Jacques Tati so that was icing on the cake.

  5. Very nice write-up bro. I reviewed this one myself a while back. I think I gave it 3.5. It was a good little film but I found that it started to drag a little. Still, the animation was a real treat and that sweeping shot of Edinburgh was very well delivered.

    • Thanks. I think the Tati connection really hit home with me. As a huge fan of his classic films I could see the tips of the hat to him all through The Illusionist. And as you say, the animation is great. It was a delight.

  6. This sounds fantastic. I’m usually not a huge fan of animated films either, but sometimes they really take me by surprise. You’ve got me excited to check out Mr. Hulot’s Holiday, too. I have that queued up for my project. Great review man!

    • Oh I hope you see Mr. Hulot’s Holiday. It’s so funny and so different than most comedy styles. I have a review of it on the site. I would love to hear your thoughts on it.

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