The Illusionist: 4 out of 5
While watching the 2004 Academy Awards, I recall the award for Best Original Song. After sitting through a set of nominated songs that brought little excitement, the final entry came on. It was for “Belleville Rendez-vous” from the animated French comedy, The Triplets of Belleville, directed by Sylvain Chomet. This song was a burst of jazzy fun and I felt I immediately needed to see that movie. After having done so, I immediately fell in love with it and would be anticipating whatever Chomet had to offer next. Now that time has come with Chomet’s new film, The Illusionist, which is different from ‘Belleville’, due to how much more restrained it is, but still maintains a familiar sense of humor and wonderful, mostly hand drawn, animation.
The film begins in 1959 Paris. It tells the story of an older, struggling illusionist attempting to maintain relevance. He continues to perform his magic act, despite the emerging popularity of other types of shows, such as rock & roll and pop music. The illusionist (known in the credits as Tatischeff) is a lanky and well dressed fellow, whose act is old fashioned. He does simple enough tricks that could have once impressed many, but now has to deal with a less interested audience and a rabbit that does not exactly work well at staying within Tatischeff’s hat when it needs to.
While traveling to different cities that are generous enough to offer work for an Illusionist, Tatischeff meets a bar owner’s daughter, who is convinced that he can do real magic. Soon after leaving, Tatischeff discovers that this girl, Alice, has stowed away, and wants to travel around with him. Alice is young and naïve, but has a kind heart. Tatischeff continues to perform at various places such as obscure theaters and parties, but may have to realize that the time for some acts may have to come to a close.
The story was based on an unproduced and semi-autobiographical script by Jacques Tati (whose family name is Tatischeff). Tati was a famed French filmmaker and comedic actor from the mid-20th century who passed away in 1982. Tati intended to film the story as a live action film, but once Chomet acquired it, he made it his desire to develop this film as an animated tale, which is effective for what it attempts to convey.
The hand drawn animation style (which is quite refreshing to see every once in a while) fits very well for this story. With minimal use of CG, the film has a great look to it, some nice use of color, but still seems to recall the films of various European directors of the mid-20th century. It is all in the mannerisms shown in the characters, without over-emphasizing the actions on display, and capturing the spirit of a particular time period. The film works at a much different pace than Chomet’s previous feature, Belleville, which was very much about exaggerating character traits and presenting a very vibrant and lively world. In this film, the humor and general tone is much more subdued, with much focus going towards the father-daughter-type relationship between Tatischeff and Alice.
While the film does qualify as a comedy, it certainly does not feel like a laugh-out-loud one. It is instead, a very humorous film, with a lot of the comedic elements stemming from the mannerisms and awkward nature of Tatischeff around others. There are also some great sight gags, running jokes, and character touches (including a very depressed clown). Finally, Tatischeff’s rabbit is a wonderful addition to the humorous aspect as well, which becomes especially effective towards the end, as that relationship is built up for a touching payoff.
Really, this film does great work at finding the right emotional beats to hit. That is not to say that this film will tug at the heartstrings in the way that Toy Story 3 or Up did, but the way The Illusionist works to connect you to these characters does set you up for some reflection on the actions taken. It should also be noted that the film has a bittersweet way of rapping itself up, which is another way that this film manages to be quite effective. After saying all this and talking basically about how I responded on an emotional level to the film, I have to point out that all of this is done with hardly any dialogue. None of the characters really speak in a discernable way (hence the lack of quotes, as that is my standard way to bookend these reviews); they simple motion to each other with body language and sometimes mumble out some unintelligible words. Given that the original Tati was also a mime (and even makes a cameo in this film), it still managed to feel fitting.
Having started this review by talking about the music of The Triplets of Belleville, I must say that the soundtrack to this film was one aspect that I was very excited about. Once again, this film differs from Belleville quite obviously in that respect, as these films are very different in tone from each other. While Belleville had high energy, jazzy themes to help propel it along (although it softened up along the way as well), The Illusionist has a score that is much more passive. As with Belleville, the score for this film was also provided by Chomet and is a great, soft listen.
The Illusionist had all the elements of a film that I will continue to adore in future viewings. While it has a slowish pace and delivers much of its humor in a more laid back manner, the film does a great job at creating an experience that is both old fashioned and unique in its presentation. While it certainly sits in good company for this year’s Oscar for Best Animated Feature (next to How to Train Your Dragon and Toy Story 3), The Illusionist is definitely in contention for a reason. The film delivers in its quirky, French style, while providing a bittersweet tale that resonated with me. It probably won’t stay in theaters for very long, but if you can find it or get a hold of it, that would be a magical choice.