The Illusionist

The Illusionist (2010) movie poster

(2010) director Sylvain Chomet
viewed: 02/19/11 at The Clay Theater, SF, CA

Having enjoyed director Sylvain Chomet’s The Triplets of Belleville (2003) so much, I was keenly looking forward to his latest film, The Illusionist.  And I was working to get the kids excited.  The trailer for the film is low-key, but I reminded them of The Triplets of Belleville, which they remembered fondly to build their anticipation.  Felix queried me, “Which one of the films received better reviews?”  I told him that I didn’t know, that they both had received good reviews, but I did tell him that I thought it was going to be less strange and fantastic than The Triplets of Belleville.  Turns out, I was very right.

And for the record, The Illusionist, while a lovely, melancholic film, is no The Triplets of Belleville.

Chomet adapted an unproduced script by Jacques Tati, the story of a touring “illusionist”, set in the 1950’s, bouncing from town to town, gig to gig, increasingly passe compared to the onslaught of rock’n’roll, quaint, talented, but not prospering.  The aging magician heads to Scotland, where he lands in a small town, where a young woman, believing his magic to be real, tags along with him to Edinburgh, like a long-lost daughter.

The film is low-key, as the trailer indicated.  Like The Triplets of Belleville, the film is virtually wordless.  Whether people are speaking French, English, or Gaelic, their words are mumbled and unimportant, with all of the story really told through gestures and images, which gives the film its primary charm.  The animation is traditional cel animation, with a particularly “hand-drawn” style that offers genuine character.   Chomet’s people are hilarious caricatures, with massive noses, buck teeth, grandly rendered.

The Illusionist is really an utter homage to Tati.  The illusionist himself is styled after Tati’s film persona, a gangly, pear-shaped, but deft and comic, much like Charlie Chaplain at moments.  And the story, which is said to have been inspired by a relationship with an estranged daughter, is sad and quiet.

Edinburgh, as everything else, is rendered in miraculous detail.  Much of the film is lovely and charming, though the most humorous character, the magician’s feisty rabbit, is only a bit player, a highlight.  The film focuses on the change of culture, to rock’n’roll and cinema, away from the Vaudeville-like stage performers who once created the magic of entertainment.  But as the illusionist tells the girl, in a card that he leaves for her, “There are no magicians in the world” (or something to that effect.)  In other words, in this process of aging and the changing of the world, things slip away, disappear, and quite frankly, there is no real magic in the world.

The kids liked it, though they noted how it was kind of sad.  It was a rainy day movie, and a apropos one at that, as it rains throughout the film quite a bit.  The film has charm, but it lacks the strangeness of Chomet’s earlier film, which was certainly a part of what made that film so interesting.  I guess I was a little disappointed with it.  Not terribly.  I’m glad we saw it.  Especially because the other kid film option in town yesterday was Gnomeo & Juliet (2011), which I’d gladly avoid on the whole, and snobbishly prefer that we saw The Illusionist anyway.

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