No one appreciates a classically trained magician anymore. With contemporary tricksters like Criss Angel freaking your mind, it’s not enough these days to make a canary vanish from its birdcage or pull a silver dollar out from behind someone’s ear to grab an audience’s attention.
In the French-British animated film The Illusionist (L’illusionniste), director Sylvain Chomet delivers a breath of fresh air to those not easily distracted by the gimmicky bells and whistles of modern magic or computer graphics. For that, The Illusionist lets you in on its most remarkable ruse of all. With nothing up its sleeves, it creates a beautifully imagined narrative right out of thin air.
Based on an unproduced, semi-autobiographical script written in 1956 by French director, comedian, and mime Jacques Tati for his daughter, The Illusionist is a Chaplinesque throwback featuring quietly realized characters that unfortunately would be overshadowed by most of the pushy, dumbed-down 3-D cartoons studios bank on today.
In only Chomet’s second full-length animation (his first was the delightful 2003 Academy Award-nominated film The Triplets of Belleville), The Illusionist, which received its own Oscar nod this year, is another example of the auteur’s precision to detail and eye for elegant and soft two-dimensional drawings. One might call Chomet a minimalist from an artistic standpoint, but the complex nature of his characters resonates soundly even with dialogue being almost nonexistent throughout.
Much like the themes of the underappreciated 2009 Australian stop-motion claymation Mary & Max, which deals with an odd relationship between an imaginative little girl in Sydney and a grown man living with Asperger’s syndrome in New York City, The Illusionist builds on its two charming protagonists through bittersweet and touching moments.
Set in Paris in 1959, the film follows a veteran illusionist who travels from town to town with his ornery rabbit looking for places to perform. While he’s not short on talent, jobs are sparse since an aging illusionist isn’t what anyone would consider a headlining act. When he befriends a young chambermaid who believes all his magic is somehow real, the two set off on a fascinating journey filled with colorful supporting characters, including a trio of energetic acrobats, a lonesome ventriloquist, and a suicidal clown.
Consider Chomet, however, the ringmaster and main attraction in this melancholic circus accented by a warm, watercolored Edinburg landscape. The Illusionist is a low-key show, but one that could never be considered unoriginal. The tender way Chomet handles the story’s poignancy should be reason enough for admirers to hope he doesn’t wait another seven years for an encore.
The Illusionist (L’illusionniste)
Dir. Sylvain Chomet; writ. Jacques Tati; feat. Jean-Claude Donda, Eilidh Rankin, Duncan MacNeil, Raymond Mearns, James T. Muir, Tom Urie, Paul Bandey (PG)