Sylvain Chomet must have spent the past eight years, since his last film was released, honing his artistic skills in both music and animation direction, because “The Illusionist” is a cultural masterpiece.
Originally written years before by Jacques Tatischeff, famous for his work in “Mon Oncle” (1958) and “Play Time” (1967,) Chomet took over the reins and breathed new life into the creation, utilizing the technology of today while playing on the characteristics of older foreign titles.
The main character is an older man, working his way through the dwindling market magicians faced during 1959. He seems contented enough to travel the world, from act to measly act, until he stays in an inn one day in Scotland, where a young girl becomes immediately taken by his performance.
During his stay, she (Alice) scurries around the cozy little cottage in torn and creaky boots, making her presence known while trying to inconspicuously scrub the floors. Her innocence and hospitality soon charm him into buying her a new pair of red clogs that fit her perfectly.
Soon, it’s time for the Illusionist to leave, so Alice surprises him in boarding the train a seat across from him, with a telling glance in his direction. He surprises her, in exchange, with a flick of the wrist to produce a ticket for her to tag along. From then on, the two are as inseparable as a father and daughter under constrained circumstances.
Set in Edinburgh, Scotland, and the UK, the characters don’t have much of a dialogue beyond the occasional grunt of brief slang in any number of languages.
The original score was written by Chomet, himself, which outlines and emphasizes each character’s feelings to an accurate degree, while lending an undertone of wistfulness and wonder to the overall emotion of the film. An accompaniment of French accordion and classic piano do the trick.
On the topic of production, ‘The Illusionist’ blends 2-D hand-drawn animations while using a computer to render some scenes scanned in 3-D. In one scene, wavering flowers are bobbing along gracefully to the rhythm of the wind, strung about a hill where Alice picks a bouquet, all while rolling clouds overhead bring interchanging views of darkness and light to play on the countryside.
I overheard a group discussing the film behind me, as my brother and I walked out of the theater. One guy said, “the cars were done really well, that was impressive.” He was speaking about the 3-D animation, of course.
One devout Tati fan, Richard Stracke of examiner.com, felt the film was a disgrace to the screenwriter’s name, however.
“That the film came to fruition at all is justification for any artist to consider burning their manuscripts on their deathbed,” he writes.
What I gathered is the main theme of the picture is that change is inevitable, and that all good things come to an end. Change can make way for bigger and better things to come and go and may even help you grow, whether in a negative or positive sense, but maybe this is something Stracke missed.
Frankly, I was focused on how complex each character seemed to be, while small glimpses into the lives of these animations hint at a deeper, more expansive life story for each one.
Such details as a dripping shower head in the hotel bathroom in the UK and the recurrence of one particular couple sporting satirically large front teeth bring a dose of reality to the 2-D drawing.
More glamorous live-action movies have failed to drag me into a story, as much as I was sure that I had walked the city streets with Alice on those longs nights and sat in an otherwise empty theater, watching the Illusionist work his magic.