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Film review: 'The Illusionist'

January 21, 2011 7:08 a.m.

KPBS film critic Beth Accomando reviews "The Illusionist."

Related Story: Review: 'The Illusionist'


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

KPBS-FM Radio Film Review: "The Illusionist"
By Beth Accomando
Air date: January 21, 2011

KPBS film critic Beth Accomando picked "The Illusionist" as the best animated film of the year. Find out why.

ILLUSION (ba).wav SOQ 3:55 (music out at )

(Tag:) "The Illusionist" opens today (Friday) at Landmark's Ken Cinema. You can find more of Beth's reviews and post your own comments at K-P-B-S-dot-O-R-G-slash-cinema-junkie.


3D and expensive CGI dominates American animation. But one French film offers enchanting hand drawn animation for a tale of a magician.

CLIP Continuing our evening of magic, The Royal Luxor is proud to present the film "The Illusionist"… there seems to be some technical hitch while we fix it let me ask you to give a warm welcome once again to our friend magician. (:)

"The Illusionist" is KPBS film critic Beth Accomando's pick for the best animated film of 2010. Be listening for her review. Coming up on Morning Edition.

Despite high profile films like "Toy Story 3" and "Tangled," 2010 was a weak year for animation. Technology is advancing but not storytelling. "Toy Story 3" followed the exact formula of its two predecessors while "Tangled" delivered the same perky Disney princess we've grown accustomed to. Part of the problem is that animation in Hollywood is forced to sit at the kids' table. That puts a lot of restrictions on filmmakers when it comes to the stories they can tell and how they can tell them. Fortunately, there's more diversity in animation outside the U.S.

CLIP Continuing our evening of magic, The Royal Luxor is proud to present the film "The Illusionist"…

"The Illusionist" was my favorite animated film from last year. It opted for old school hand drawn 2D animation over state of the art 3D for its tale of a French magician.

CLIP There seems to be some technical hitch while we fix it let me ask you to give a warm welcome once again to our friend magician. (:)

"The Illusionist" is based on an unproduced script by French filmmaker and actor Jacques Tati. Tati is best known to American audiences for his character M. Hulot. Wearing a signature raincoat and carrying an umbrella and pipe, M. Hulot went off on comic adventures in five films beginning in 1953. The protagonist in "The Illusionist" is called Tatischeff and is an obvious homage to Tati. In fact, at one point Tatischeff wanders into a theater to find the live action Jacques Tati on the screen.

CLIP Movie Theater

We see Tati and his animated alter ego together. Both are tall with rounded stomachs perched precariously atop long legs that look even longer because his pants are too short. They walk with the grace of a man navigating his way across a swaying boat deck. And both seem a bit befuddled by the world around them. In "The Illusionist," Tatischeff is a struggling magician who sometimes finds himself performing to an audience of two or filling the bottom end of a bill dominated by a pop band not unlike the Beatles.

CLIP Band plays

Tatischeff then performs in Scotland where he meets a young girl that he takes under his wing. She believes he is capable of genuine magic and the two develop a sweet father-daughter relationship.

CLIP In apartment

Tati's script is semi-autobiographical and that has been the source of some controversy. The story is supposedly inspired by one of Tati's daughters but the question is which one -- the legitimate or illegitimate child? But that controversy should not affect one's enjoyment of the film.

"The Illusionist" has been beautifully brought to the screen by filmmaker Sylvain Chomet, the man who made the delightful "Triplets of Belleville." Chomet, like Tati, understand physical comedy and eschews almost all dialogue. This is a film that transcends language and needs no translation. At one point, Tatischeff and the young girl are in the middle of a street at night with cars rushing by.

CLIP car sounds

It appears that a pair of headlights is coming straight for them but at the last moment we realize it is two motorcycles that split up to pass on either side of our characters leaving them unharmed.

Chomet reprises the themes that Tati constantly returned to. Tati's world was often set against a more modern and bustling one. So Chomet's choice of hand drawn animation is especially apt here since Tati always seemed to look upon technology as something cold. Chomet's delicate hand drawn animation displays a keen eye for details of both character and environment, and complements Tati's themes to perfection.

Some may find the plot too wispy for a feature length film and at times it does seem stretched a bit thin. But there is such charm and enchantment on display here that the film is hard to resist. It is also tinged with a bittersweet melancholy. Chomet not only pays homage to Tati but also bids adieu to a way of life that no longer exists and maybe never really did.

"The Illusionist" has real heart and soul. It also tackles complex ideas. Tatischeff tells us that "magicians do not exist." But all that we have seen suggests that perhaps magic does, even if it's just cinematic sleight of hand.

For KPBS, I'm Beth Accomando.