***originally written 13 September 2010***
This is not the 2006 movie with Edward Norton. I haven’t seen that movie. I was told it wasn’t very good. No, this particular Illusionist comes from the same peculiar pocket of French animation that gave us Belleville Rendezvous back in 2003. That pocket belongs to Sylvain Chomet, and what a delightful set of curiosities he keeps. Fashioned in a pleasingly traditional manner from line-drawings and watercolours, The Illusionist thoroughly transports the viewer into it’s world, a trip back to 1959, Scotland, and the dying art of the music hall magician. It’s a requiem for another time and place, not so long ago, evocative and bittersweet.
The illusionist in question is named Tatischeff, French in origin. He has a willful rabbit in a hat, a tired routine, and his own aging, lumbering body to contend with. And Rock n Roll is happening. Following up these noisy upstarts is difficult to do. He’s outdated. But he needs to live. After finding little success in Paris or London, Tatischeff goes North to Scotland, delighting locals in a fishing village. It is here that he meets naive Alice, who mops floors in an inn. She believes wholeheartedly that Tatishceff is a true magician, and accompanies him to Edinburgh. Tatischeff cannot bear to shatter the illusion, and so uses any money he manages to make to buy the items Alice is convinced he can conjure out of the air. And so The Illusionist paints itself before the eyes for a leisurely and luxurious 80ish minutes.
This is a million miles away from your Toy Stories and your Shreks, and thank God. You can keep ’em. The Illusionist is an animation of poignancy and pathos, of witty comic flourishes, but subtle ones. Humanity is tangible in every lovingly painted frame. The plot and the pace are slight – surely too slight for some – but it’s all about nuance. About recognising character types – even ourselves – in the actions recreated by the characters on the screen. Restless children on train journeys, officious managers, plucky entrepreneurs; these characters help build a world we recognise for Tatischeff and Alice to navigate, and it’s the small details that give the film it’s charm and beauty, subtleties that the larger American animation studios just aren’t interested in.
The Illusionist feels like a labour of love for it’s creators, but it is not merely an artful exercise in traditional animation. Digital elements make up a significant portion of what appears in the movie, but they are rendered with an exacting touch, so that they do not work at odds with the line-drawn backgrounds, but rather compliment them, enhancing the reality of The Illusionist rather than shattering it. This is no small trick in itself.
Ultimately some will be disappointed with the ending, which searches for truth and reality where many may be hoping for a ‘trick’ to come. It is not a feel-good finale, but nor is it an emotionally blackmailing one (I’m looking at you, Toy Story 3). It sits just right with the rest of the picture. Is The Illusionist too precious? A little. As much as I enjoyed the small scale of the story, there are times when the tale dangles precariously close to disappearing completely, and an aside in which Tatischeff gets a job as a nighttime mechanic, though enjoyable, feels like a missing reel from a sitcom. But overall The Illusionist is a delightful little film. And Sylvain Chomet should be given every encouragement to continue bringing us these perfectly normal stories from beautifully re-imagined worlds.