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The Illusionist (2010, France)

21/03/2011

Director: Sylvain Chomet       Starring: Jean-Claude Donda, Eilidh Rankin, Duncan MacNeil

I first became aware of Sylvain Chomet’s eccentric style of animation some years ago via his first feature length animated film Belleville Rendezvous (aka The Triplets Of Belleville). I was blown away by the wit and charm of the film and the majesty of the images, images that drove a story largely devoid of dialogue. The seven years that passed between that and his second full length animation, The Illusionist, have done little to dull his creativity. Unfairly robbed of the Best Animated Feature Oscar at this year’s Academy Awards (an Oscar that went, quite predictably, to the undeserving Toy Story 3) The Illusionist is Chomet’s realisation of an unfilmed Jacques Tati script that is (pun not entirely unintended) absolutely magical.

The titular stage magician is a man forced to come to terms with the demise of the music hall era, the demand for his style of entertainment waining in the face of the rise of rock’n’roll bands and “youth” culture. His search for work leads him to Scotland where he meets a young girl who believes his tricks are real magic and so travels with him to Edinburgh. Not wanting to disappoint his new found fan, the Illusionist maintains the illusion that his magic is real and supplies her with increasingly extravagant gifts, meeting the cost by taking on mundane “day jobs” in order to make ends meet.

It’s a touching and tragic tale. Although it feels broadly like a comedy in the slapstick tradition (there are plenty of visual gags going on in the background for the eagle eyed and attentive viewer) there is a rather bittersweet overtone to the film. The conspiracy of coincidences that reinforces young Alice’s belief that he is indeed a genuine, honest to goodness magician is funny at first, but the realisation quickly dawns that with her growing belief comes a bigger lie, a bubble that must inevitably burst. The effect is subtle but very effective. Really it’s a film about change and loss. As the Illusionst must face the end of an era and of this stage of his life Alice must face the end of her childhood and the loss of the wide eyed innocence that makes the world seem so magical. Like Belleville, there is little by way of dialogue (what there is is mostly gibberish designed to evoke a sense of what’s going on without spelling it out) but the absence of anything to distract from the luscious visuals is a welcome change.

All of this occurs without it being remotely maudlin or schmaltzy. Chomet’s skill at interweaving the humanity of the film with clever comic sequences carefully avoids the film becoming a boring exercise in sentimentality. It helps that it features some of the most beautifully drawn animation you are likely to see, it’s retro styling very refreshing in the face of the all singing, all dancing, 3D CGI extravaganzas that are increasingly becoming the norm for animated films. Mostly hand drawn with occasional (and very appropriate) uses of 3D computer animation it has a nostalgic feel that complements it’s themes of declining eras, amply demonstrating that just because something may seem “old fashioned” doesn’t necessarily mean it no longer has value or purpose. In fact the vintage style suits the vintage setting of late fifties Edinburgh down to a tee.  Like the brash rock’n’roll bands that are forcing the Illusionist off the stage, the Pixars and Dreamworks of this world (good as their movies may be) are killing off more traditional, 2D animation but with more than enough going on to satisfy animation fans of all ages I’m with Alice on this one, firm in the belief that The Illusionist really is magic.

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