Film Review: Animated magic no Illusion

In 'The Illusionist,' an aging stage performer befriends a naive young woman who believes his tricks are actual magic.

Sony Pictures Classicas

In "The Illusionist," an aging stage performer befriends a naive young woman who believes his tricks are actual magic.

Sweet and sad, mysterious and melancholy, "The Illusionist" is this year's underdog nominee for the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature Film.

A French-British production created by an international team of animators under the direction of France's Sylvain Chomet, "The Illusionist" is the lone "hand-drawn" film in the category, in which it is competing against two big-budget, computer-animated Hollywood blockbusters, DreamWorks' "How to Train Your Dragon" and Disney-Pixar's "Toy Story 3," the expected winner.

"The Illusionist" is a story about two paths that cross. An outdated, aging magician, forced to wander from country to country, city to city and ...

Rating: PG for thematic elements and smoking

Length: 82 minutes

Released: December 25, 2010 NY/LA

Cast: Jean-Claude Donda, Edith Rankin, Jil Aigrot, Didier Gustin, Frédéric Lebon

Director: Sylvain Chomet

Writer: Sylvain Chomet, Jacques Tati

More info and showtimes »

Chomet has been in this position before. His wonderful 2003 feature "The Triplets of Belleville" lost that year's Animated Feature Oscar to Pixar's "Finding Nemo."

"The Illusionist" is not as funny or distinctive as "Triplets," but it's a beautiful, sometimes stunning piece of work, especially when Chomet indulges his artists and lingers on people-free images -- created with pen and ink and watercolor -- of misty druidic hillsides, rain-fogged Edinburgh streetscapes and rushing trains reflected in the waters of a Scottish loch.

An elegy for the lost days of music halls and pantomime comedy presented, appropriately, through a form of entertainment that is itself a dying art (hand-drawn animation), "The Illusionist' opens in Paris in 1959, where Tatischeff, a tall, gangly, undemonstrative stage magician, is performing his last show in his native country.

Seeking work, the illusionist -- accompanied by his ill-tempered rabbit -- travels to Scotland, where his sleight of hand is accepted as genuine magic by a naive young washerwoman, who attaches herself to the performer as a sort of surrogate daughter. She is helpful and earnest but -- like many young people -- also unwittingly self-centered.

The pair travel to a hotel for entertainers in Edinburgh, where the girl's coming-of-age is paralleled by the magician's increasing obsolescence. Because the illusionist and not the girl remains the story's central character, the finale is more heartbreaking than hopeful.

The fact that the characters speak different languages and that the illusionist doesn't speak English provides justification for the movie's almost complete lack of dialogue; the result is essentially a silent comedy that pays homage to the tradition of Keaton, Lloyd, Chaplin and, explicitly, the film's inspiration, the late Jacques Tati.

Although the movie has parallels to Chaplin's sentimental "Limelight," a 1952 film about a washed-up vaudevillian and a young woman, "The Illusionist" was adapted by Chomet from an unproduced 1956 script by Tati, the beloved French pantomimist and filmmaker known for such elegant comedies -- treated as "art films" in America, despite their audience-pleasing whimsy and slapstick -- as "M. Hulot's Holiday" (1953) and "Play Time" (1967).

The magician character in "The Illusionist" is an animated version of Tati (whose real name was Tatischeff); in one clever scene, caricature and live-action inspiration confront each other when the magician stumbles into the aptly named Cameo theater, which is screening Tati's "Mon Oncle" (1958).

Apparently, Tati wrote "The Illusionist" in an attempt to deal with his feelings about the daughter he abandoned when she was a child. This revealing and highly personal theme may explain why the script remained unproduced during Tati's lifetime. It also may explain why some of Tati's more fervent and protective admirers, including biographer David Bellos, have rejected the film as a simplification and sentimentalization of Tati's vision.

They probably have a point, but Chomet -- like the best directors of physical comedy -- is a fan of Tatiesque wide compositions and long "takes" (if that term applies to cartoons) that best show off the talents of the "performers." The film also contains several grace notes that I absolutely associate with Tati, who could create moments of screen magic from the simplest resources. In one scene, the shadow of fluttering book pages on a wall seems to become a bird in flight; in another, the girl shivers and pulls her sweater close about her when she mistakes a flurry of feathers blown past her window for a snowfall. In such instances, the prosaic becomes transcendent, in contradiction of the film's stated insistence that magic isn't real.

"The Illusionist" is at Malco's Ridgeway Four.

-- John Beifuss: 529-2394

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