The Illusionist delivers a quiet contrast to the boisterous animation served up by the likes of Pixar and Dreamworks in recent years. Working from an unproduced 1956 script by the iconic French filmmaker Jacques Tati (Mon Oncle), director Sylvain Chomet (The Triplets of Bellville) follows an aging magician struggling to find an audience in the changing entertainment landscape of 1959.
While he’s frequently passed over for the likes of pretty boy pop stars and even juke boxes, he still puts on a good show. This allows him to make a strong connection to one fan, a young bar maid named Alice who believes in the power of magic. The film is largely dialogue free, and the two communicate mainly with hand gestures since they don’t speak the same language.
The heartbreaking film is perhaps best appreciated if looked at as a piece of art rather than something that aims to entertain and inspire laughter. The script was intended by Tati for live action, but it is more suited for animation anyway. This gorgeous animation, the way the yellow lights and shadows flicker from the fireplace in The Illusionist’s room, is remarkably vibrant and detailed.
When he cluelessly begins working for the man, our illusionist takes up a job at a body shop. After accidentally spraying oil on the door of one customer’s white and pink sportster, he backs it out into the rain. The slow, seamless rinse of the oil splash that ensues is a simple marvel. Though the story is largely a downer, this sort of meticulous animation is easy to appreciate.
This isn’t to say the animation is perfect, but that only adds to its charm. In one scene, Alice serves dinner and fills an entire bowl with one ladle of soup that is clearly only about a third of the size of the bowl. Is this an illusion? Or is it merely Tati’s way of telling us what movie magician George Melies began showing us in the late 1890s when his editing tricks became our first look at special effects? Movies are magic, perhaps the bane of existence for old school entertainers like the title character.
I saw The Illusionist at Chicago’s legendary Music Box Theatre, a rather appropriate venue if you ask me. Like the film’s titular magician, this classic movie house still stands for something pure in this age of 30-screen multiplexes, digital downloads and Netflix. With the two working together, they managed to pull together an impressive crowd — for any time really, but especially for 1:30 on a Monday. It’s good to know there’s still something left.