En español | You’ll not see an animated film more lovingly rendered, more heartfelt in its storytelling, more wistful in its humor, than Sylvain Chomet’s new movie, The Illusionist. The story of a past-his-prime French magician trying to make one last stand in 1950s Edinburgh while caring for a young girl who idolizes him proves the timeless relevance of ink-and-paint animation — even in an era when computerized toons have pushed them to the fringes.
Chomet’s breakthrough feature film, The Triplets of Belleville, should have won the Best Animated Feature Film Oscar a few years back — although I found it too aggressively manic in spots. This time, like a magician skillfully pacing his act, Chomet unfolds his narrative slowly, deliberately — with sudden flourishes of action or outrageous humor.
Film buffs — especially those with a soft spot for French comedy — will instantly recognize the title character as a caricature of the great 1950s comedian Jacques Tati, who won an Oscar for his 1958 classic, Mon Oncle. When he died, in 1982, Tati, a notoriously meticulous filmmaker, left behind an unproduced script. A few years ago his daughter suggested that Chomet adapt it, with an animated Tati as the central character. What emerges from the across-the-centuries collaboration is a film worthy both of Tati’s legacy and Chomet’s dogged insistence that hand-drawn animation is still an art to be reckoned with.
The Illusionist opens in Paris, where the magician is playing to a polite but small audience. He gets his walking papers and accepts a gig at a rustic pub on a remote Scottish island. The trip to the island, on a small motorized boat, is itself a masterful piece of animator’s art: The sea billows, and so does the captain’s kilt, revealing that what they say about a traditional Scotsman’s undergarments (or lack thereof) is absolutely true.
The adults at the pub are amused by the magician’s performance, but a young chambermaid is absolutely entranced. When the magician leaves the island, she stows away and follows him to Edinburgh. There, with no immediate job prospects in place for either one, they set themselves up in a rundown tenement populated by similarly down-on-their-luck show biz types: she in the bedroom; he, with his stooped-but-still-six-foot-something body, contorted awkwardly on a couch.
Every frame of The Illusionist is packed with detail: The streets of Edinburgh are etched in far-northern sunlight and shadows; the well-trod theater stages creak under the performers’ feet. But Chomet’s greatest achievement in The Illusionist is his genius as a director of animated actors: Like Tati’s films, this one has virtually no dialogue. The characters’ motivations, reactions and moments of inner delight are all read in their faces and in their physical bearing.
At this writing, we can’t know whether or not The Illusionist will win this year’s Best Animated Feature Film Oscar (we’ll update this piece after the awards are announced). It should, of course, but even the illusionist himself, facing a future that was already passing him by, would be the first to expect to lose out to the likes of Buzz Lightyear.