Sylvain Chomet is one of the most exciting writer/directors working in film today. He is an artist dedicated to the pursuit of thoughtful and gorgeous animation. With a distinctive voice and a knack for purely visual storytelling, Chomet has ridden a mixed-media animation style to four Academy Award nominations.
The Illusionist is his second feature-length film and he more than delivers on the promise of The Triplets of Belleville. Adapted from an unproduced screenplay from Jacques Tati (Mon Ocle, Mr. Hulot's Holiday), The Illusionist follows an aging stage magician as his career fades away during the rise of Rock'n Roll. The unnamed illusionist meets a young woman at a private party. She becomes convinced the Illusionist is really a magician and joins him on his final tour, receiving gifts through sleight of hand that the illusionist spends all his money on.
What makes The Illusionist so compelling is the hand drawn animation. The characters, backgrounds, and props are traditionally animated. This gives them a very distinctive look in a field dominated by computer generated animation. However, Chomet often incorporates computer animation techniques to enhance the look of the hand drawn animation. Lighting is altered with filters, moving background textures fill out even the most static shot, and all of the coloring is done on computers. What you get is a flawless blend of two seemingly competing art forms that results in something beautiful.
That is the best word to describe The Illusionist: beautiful. Whether the scene is happy or sad, wistful or melancholy, the images onscreen wash over you like a moving painting. It's quite extraordinary that someone is willing to still spend the time to lead something so labor intensive that runs its course in eighty minutes.
As a character study, The Illusionist thrives. The unnamed magician is a proud and caring figure that slowly comes to term with the shift in the entertainment industry. He lives in an apartment complex with other novelty acts also clinging on to what's left of their appeal. He can clearly see that the clown and the ventriloquist are succumbing to depression, yet he drums on in the hope that some audience still wants him.
The young woman is not as well-defined, which helps the character study but hurts the film. She becomes a foil to the illusionist. As he slowly realizes that the place for magic in the world is shrinking, she refuses to back down from her belief that magic is real. She is a singularly motivated character: all she wants is gifts from the magician.
This choice by Chomet in adapting Tati's screenplay drags the narrative into an expanding cycle of recurring images. The illusionist sees the young woman look at something she wants. He finds a way to earn the money to buy it. He performs a magic trick to exchange the old item for the new gift. She finds something else she has to have.
There is a lovely sense of melancholy surrounding that cycle. The Illusionist becomes sad and nostalgic in the best ways possible. You don't keep watching because the story is great. You watch because the animation is beautiful and the mood gives you something to latch onto. Sylvain Chomet gifts us with a tonally strong animated feature that, once again, relies so little on dialogue that anyone anywhere in the world can enjoy the film.
Thoughts? Love to hear them.