Magic vs. reality in Sylvain Chomet’s lovely, animated ‘Illusionist’
he lovingly hand-drawn animated feature, The Illusionist, is an artifact of another era—in so many ways. The second feature from French animator Syvain Chomet (his first was the nutty-sweet The Triplets of Belleville), it has the look of old-school cel animation, in which every luscious frame is a mini work of art. The milieu it depicts, too, harks back to an earlier time, the waning days of postwar vaudeville, with its plucky variety acts, once-glamorous theaters, and slightly seedy showbiz hotels.
It’s not surprising then that the script was actually written decades ago by the late French film comic Jacques Tati. Although the word “script” can only be loosely applied to the scenario of plot and encounters in a film that is mostly without dialogue. Tati himself was practically a mime, in a series of live-action comedies with the visual gags, balletic precision and timelessness of silent film comedy. There is sound aplenty in The Illusionist —voices, music, laughter, traffic—but very few distinguishable words, which contributes much to the wistful whimsy and charm of Chomet’s film.
The story revolves around an elegant, old-world stage magician, whose specialty is sleight of hand—card tricks, bouquets or glasses of wines conjured out of thin air, the proverbial rabbit out of a hat (although his turns out to be one obstreperous bunny, always making a break for freedom, nipping whoever gets too close). But audiences are dwindling in the music halls of his native France, so he packs up his bunny and his beat-up valise, and steams across the Channel for England.
But in London, variety shows are being overtaken by raucous rock bands. (One of the great pleasures of Chomet’s film is the wry hilarity with which the sound and ambience of various musical acts—a brooding French chanteuse, an opera diva, strutting, spangled rockers called The Britoons—is so perfectly captured without one single decipherable lyric.) Ultimately, the magician lands a gig in a distant Scottish hamlet, warmly received in a neighborhood pub by its bluff, kilted patrons.
There, the magician befriends Alice, an orphaned young girl who mops the floors, and who believes his tricks are real magic. When the time comes for him to move on to Edinburgh, she follows him, presenting herself to him on board the ferry, convinced that his magic will take care of all necessities—a ferry ticket, a new pair of shoes, and anything else in her drab, but ever-hopeful young life that needs fixing.
Most of this bittersweet tale plays out during the season in Edinburgh, where the magician finds work at a shabby “Royal Music Hall.” Falling into an easy father-daughter relationship, he and the girl move into a run-down theatrical hotel mostly occupied by similar showbiz relics—a sad clown, a ventriloquist who only communicates through his chatty dummy, a trio of hilariously high-spirited acrobats who are always vaulting up and down stairs, or bouncing across the room. Chomet (and Tati) walk a fine tightrope themselves between pathos and humor in these scenes; the jokes tend to be small-scale and winsome played against the larger themes (fading dreams, encroaching reality, children inevitably growing up) that gives the tale an elegiac tone.
The story shows its age in the character of Alice, one of its few females. She’s plucky and warm-hearted, mothering all the other hotel residents, but her main function in the plot is to drift outside the city’s shop windows all day, sighing over expensive things her surrogate father can’t afford. (Disappointing too is the unceremonious way she’s handed over to another man at the end, as if that were the only conceivable destiny for a girl.)
But the movie looks glorious, especially the many travel sequences via train, boat, and ferry, across marvelous pen-and-ink landscapes, cityscapes and seascapes rendered in intoxicating watercolor washes. Gorgeous to look at, it’s a gently moving tale of illusion and its opposite in a world where magic has lost its allure.
★★★ (out of four)
A film by Sylvain Chomet. Written by Jacques Tati. Adapted by Sylvain Chomet. A Sony Classics release. Watch film trailer >>>
Rated PG. 80 minutes.