Film: The Illusionist ***
Release Date: 14th February 2011
Running time: 90 mins
Director: Sylvain Chomet
Starring: Edith Rankin, Jean-Claude Donda, Jil Aigrot, Didier Gustin
Nominated for a Golden Globe in the Best Animated Film category, written by Oscar winner Jacques Tati, and directed by Oscar nominated and BAFTA Award winning Sylvain Chomet (Belleville Rendez-Vous), The Illusionist has all the ingredients to cast a spell over those seeking something other than intimidating ogres, rodents rustling up omelettes and pandas good in a punch-up.
It’s the fifties, and struggling to maintain a foothold in an entertainments business dominated by rock stars, an elderly Illusionist is forced to take on whatever jobs he can find, including lame assignments at garden parties and gigs in remote bars.
It’s at one of the latter where Tatischeff meets waitress Alice, a sweet girl hoodwinked by his peculiar charm and mysterious talent. Feeling appreciated again, the illusionist tries his best to keep the girl by his side, showering her with gifts, as if by the magic that transfixes her.
But as Alice grows older, she becomes less dependent on him, less reliant on the gifts, and when she finally finds another kind of happiness in the shape of a younger man, Tatischeff is forced to find one more trick up his sleeve to help him face his own reality…
With barely a word spoken, The Illusionist isn’t going to go down well with children, or some adults for that matter. It may be animated, but whereas Belleville Rendez-Vous was more child-friendly, here we have suicidal clowns, drunks and a bunny that feels there’s more to life than sitting in a hat and waiting for the drum roll. It’s also painstakingly hand-drawn, creating scenes of beauty Pixar could only dream of.
In fact, those that do decide to give this a chance will be mesmerized by the gorgeous visuals so much so they’ll probably book an escape to the country not long after the credits roll. Washed in hypnotizing watercolours that create some of the most stunning scenery seen on screen, The Illusionist is one of those films made for lazy Sunday afternoons.
Writer Tati was renowned for his silent comedies, writing this story decades ago – apparently shelving it because he thought the story was far too personal. His genius is obvious. This is one of those rare films you have to watch more than once. Not because of its riveting plot, of which there isn’t much, but because of its subtle humour easily missed if you’re not paying attention.
There’s so much going on at times it’s understandable if you miss something funny. Luckily, the opening hour is filled with many wonderfully-placed gags, and that’s discounting a depressed clown, screaming girls and the changing of the guard. There’s touching moments here too: Tatischeff doing the decent thing and finally allowing his companion to discover a new way of life is so beautifully tragic you’ll be forgiven if you produce a white handkerchief merely to wipe the tear from your cheek.
Despite this, a confusing relationship between our main protagonists and a lack of twists or turning points means that for the final act your hand could be reaching for the fast-forward button on the remote control. Whilst at the beginning there is so much to admire, in the latter stages there is so little going on. The Illusionist could be one of those films that is instantly enjoyable because it’s different, but this will be tested, and is tested, if the script plods along slower than Paul Daniels on tour.
Tatischeff casts such a dreary presence throughout its hard to conjure up any kind of empathy towards him (a buffoon if ever there was one), whereas Alice could be seen as a greedy little minx using her looks and charm to seduce a vulnerable old man in order to get something more from life, even if such things are materialistic and ultimately pointless - the outcome would certainly add weight to this theory. Maybe the story should’ve focused on the clown and the bunny after all, because it seems that they got it right, and the only loser here is our leading man – where’s the magic in that?
The Illusionist is one of the most beautiful animations of all time, tricking the audience with subtle humour and endearing warmth. Sadly, all this jiggery-pokery doesn’t last forever, the final third lacking in substance and failing to generate any emotion or interest whatsoever, let alone a rabbit.