Most people have at least heard of Toy Story 3 and How To Train Your Dragon, two of this years’ three Oscar nominees for Best Animated Feature. The Illusionist is less well known, but has been receiving more attention since it added an Oscar nomination to its list of accolades. It’s currently playing in a variety of theaters across the U.S. and is scheduled to open in still more over the next few months, giving audiences ample opportunity to see it. Is this quiet and melancholy film worth checking out?
The titular illusionist is a stage magician, already a dying breed of entertainer as the movie begins. Most of his performances are sparsely attended as the public becomes more and more interested in rock bands and the still-new television. Even the remote island tavern where he and his fat, ill-tempered rabbit find their most receptive audience is in the process of installing a new jukebox. On that same island, the illusionist wins the admiration of a young maid named Alice. Taken with the illusionist’s skills and his kindness to her, Alice accompanies him to Edinburgh. The illusionist cares for his new companion and wants to make her happy, but her desire for everything the big city has to offer pushes him towards the limits of his abilities and his finances.
This is director Sylvain Chomet‘s second feature film, his first being 2003′s The Triplets of Belleville. While Chomet’s style is evident in both movies, they are extremely different. Where Triplets is a madcap adventure with heavily stylized character design, The Illusionist is more subdued in both story and visuals. Both films use minimal dialogue – The Illusionist doesn’t bother with dubbing or subtitles for its mixed language voice track, relying primarily on the characters’ actions to convey their thoughts and emotions. In The Illusionist, the lack of much dialogue works particularly well, as so much of the story hinges on what the characters aren’t saying to one another.
Fans of Triplets of Belleville may be surprised by how realistically the main characters of The Illusionist are drawn. Some of the secondary characters are more caricatured, particularly the illusionist’s fellow performers who take up residence at the same inn where he and Alice stay. But this is a film clearly set in the real world and dealing with real people. It’s the kind of movie that could have been made with live actors without much trouble. Chomet adapted the movie from a never produced screenplay by French actor and director Jacques Tati, who probably didn’t have animation in mind when he wrote it. The debate over whether animation is suitable for telling stories devoid of fantasy is an old one and whenever it comes up, I find myself referring back to Roger Ebert’s review of Grave of the Fireflies. As Ebert points out, animation emphasizes through simplifying. Even characters as realistic as the leads in The Illusionist are not as detailed as a real human being, so the details that remain become all the more important.
I was particularly captivated by the backgrounds in the movie. The level of detail is stunning, giving every setting a feeling of life and history. At the same time, the backgrounds remain unabashedly ink and paint in a way tha reminded me of the backgrounds from Ponyo. I didn’t feel like the scenery was taking center stage or that shots was chosen just to show off the skill of the background painters. The one possible exception was a computer modeled background that felt so out of place with the rest of the film that my friends and I initially thought it was the last shot in the film. But aside from that one jarring moment, the backgrounds manage to perfectly balance being noticeably beautiful with maintaing their proper role as a stage for the characters.
Between the minimal dialogue and the appropriately understated performances of the characters, The Illusionist leaves a lot up to audience interpretation. While it’s very clear that Alice sees the illusionist as someone who can make all of her dreams come true, I was never certain whether she actually believes that he has magical powers or simply thinks he is much more famous and successful than he actually is. The illusionist cares about Alice and is desperate to keep up the illusion that he really is who she believes him to be. Yet exactly what he’s getting out of their relationship isn’t clear. This isn’t a simple romance. The illusionist never gets much past walking arm in arm with Alice and he remains a perfect gentleman throughout the film. He gives her the bed in the one bedroom abode they share and spends his nights on the couch. Whether he’s looking for a friend, a fan, or a surrogate daughter is never explained. I didn’t mind this. I like movies that give me something to think about, so long as the basic logic of the plot is clear. But there were times when the film’s style of storytelling left me confused rather than curious. I didn’t understand that the illusionist repeatedly waving aside a particular outfit proffered by his agent meant he was turning down a particular job until I saw another performer had taken the job. Judging by my friend’s reactions, I wasn’t alone in this. But such confusion is rare. Overall, the movie does an excellent job of telling its story without putting every emotion and motivation right on the surface.
The Illusionist is a beautiful film, quiet, thoughtful, and deftly switching back and forth between humor and sadness. I don’t see it as the film that’s going to convince the mainstream public that hand-drawn animation still has its place in movie theaters, or that animation need not be exclusively for children. With its often distant characters and lack of heavy exposition, this is a movie that would be considered arthouse whether or not it was animated. Though it’s no fault of the film itself, I shudder to think of the clueless critics who might think it appropriate that a movie about a man in a dying profession is presented in the supposedly dying medium of hand-drawn animation. But whether or not it can change the world, The Illusionist is still an excellent movie and definitely worth seeing. It’s a great moviegoing experience and a reminder that animation is just as capable of telling realistic human stories as it is of bringing to life fantastic illusions.
All images in this article are copyright Sony Pictures Classics.