The magic is real in ‘Illusionist’

FRIDAY, FEB. 11, 2011

Bittersweet and melancholy are not words usually associated with animation, but they are the ones that best fit “The Illusionist,” the new feature by French director Sylvain Chomet.

As those who know and love his last film – the sprightly “The Triplets of Belleville” – understand, Chomet is a completely idiosyncratic filmmaker, someone whose eccentric animation does not resemble anyone else’s.

In “The Illusionist,” Chomet has teamed with another singular talent, the late French comic master Jacques Tati.

Tati wrote the script for “The Illusionist” but never directed it. His daughter Sylvia passed the script on to Chomet, who felt such a kinship with the material that he brought it to life.

“The Illusionist” is set in 1959, and the story’s protagonist, who bears a considerable resemblance to Tati, is a vagabond magician of grave and serious demeanor, a mildly talented relic of an earlier time.

He travels around Europe with an obstreperous rabbit and shares the stage with up-and-coming acts like the proto-rock group Billy Boy and the Britoons.

Somehow enticed to travel to Scotland, the illusionist ends up performing in a lively pub in a tiny village at the back of the beyond. There he entrances the young waif-like girl who cleans his room, a ragged urchin who is so unsophisticated that she believes the magic is real.

When the magician leaves town for a stay in Edinburgh, the young girl stows away with him, and he ends up becoming a kind of surrogate parent. It’s an interlude for both of them, something that makes the difficulties of life more bearable than they sometimes are.

Turning a live-action script into an animated one has taken some doing. Tati’s features often did without dialogue, and for this film Chomet has his characters speak a strange, polyglot tongue that makes the words sound familiar but not quite comprehensible.

As with “Triplets of Belleville,” much of the pleasure in “The Illusionist” lies with the story’s random incidents and detours. The wacky theatrical hotel the magician stays in in Edinburgh, complete with super-short managers and acrobatic neighbors; the car-washing apparatus he gets tangled up with; even the stubborn cattle he meets on a country road, hold our attention as much as anything else.

Best of all is “The Illusionist’s” gorgeous, delicately colored visual palette. Views of London’s Big Ben in the rain, the Scottish countryside and especially Edinburgh as it was half a century ago – Chomet lived in the city during production – delight us and remind us how many different ways animation can charm and captivate.

There is something magical about “The Illusionist’s” world, and that’s as it should be.


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