Review: ‘The Illusionist’
Now for the Best Animated Film of 2010!
Friday, January 21, 2011
Credit: Sony Pictures Classics
KPBS film critic Beth Accomando reviews "The Illusionist."
"The Illusionist" (opening January 21 at Landmark's Hillcrest Cinemas) is just arriving in San Diego but it was the best animated film of 2010. You can listen to my radio feature or read my review.
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.
"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. "The Illusionist" is based on an unproduced script by late 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 (which is Tati's real name) 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. 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.
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. 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. We get characters that display quirky physicality - too short, too skinny, too angular, or, as with a hilariously drunk Scotsman, with a kilt that blows humorously in the wind. At one point, Tatischeff and the young girl are in the middle of a street at night with cars rushing by. A pair of headlights comes 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" (rated PG for thematic elements and smoking, and in English, French, and Gaelic with no subtitles necessary) is a film anyone can enjoy. It is not, like the American animation of the past year, aimed just at kiddies. It has real heart and soul, and an animated artistry that is more akin to that of Japan's Hayao Miyazaki. It also touches upon more complex ideas than you will usually find in American animation -- ideas about life, regret, and inevitable change. ("Up" is the only recent American animated film that tries for similar themes.)
At the end, 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.
Companion viewing: "The Triplets of Belleville," "Mr. Hulot's Holiday," "Playtime," "Mon Oncle," "Up"
(PLEASE NOTE: I had mistakenly had Alain Resnais' "Mon Oncle D'Amerique" listed for companion viewing when I actually meant Jacques Tati's ""Mon Oncle." Thanks to a reader for noticing this. I have been on pain medication for surgery so I will blame this error on that! Thanks!)
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