By Marty Mulrooney
The Illusionist is a new British-French animated film from acclaimed director Sylvain Chomet (Belleville Rendez-vous). The film centres around a travelling entertainer who befriends a young girl named Alice whilst performing in a small Scottish village during the late 1950’s. When he travels to Edinburgh in search of work she follows him, unaware that his magic is in fact just an illusion. The gifts he bestows upon her seem to have been conjured from thin air, but behind the scenes he is constantly scraping together as much money as possible so he can keep up the ruse, unwilling to break the spell.
Much like Chomet’s previous project, The Illusionist is a very visual film. Paris is a beautiful location, as are the Scottish highlands, but it is when the story moves to Edinburgh that the film really begins to hit its stride. I visited the city last year and it takes my breath away just how authentically the artists have captured the feel of the place with mere ink and brush. It is immediately apparent that this is a beautiful film, rivalled only by Studio Ghibli in terms of raw artistry.
The flip side of this, for better or worse, is that the audio side of the film is mostly left silent. Music plays and rain patters, but the actual characters themselves rarely say a word outside of the occasional gobbledygook sentence with the odd decipherable word thrown in for good measure. This lends the film a unique, gentle pace. Like Belleville Rendez-vous before it, it is amazing how much The Illusionist manages to say without saying anything at all. This is a film of feelings and actions rather than words and events.
There are many wonderful moments aside from the growing central relationship. The other inhabitants of the Edinburgh hotel where Alice and the illusionist stay provide a darkly humorous visual metaphor for the slow death of the traditional entertainment industry. Bands such as ‘The Britoons’ (an obvious parody of The Beatles and similar bands around at the time) manage to pack music halls with screaming female fans, whilst conjured wine glasses are delivered to empty rooms. Performing in a department store window becomes an act of desperation. There is gentle humour throughout, but the permeating mood is one of despair. Times are changing.
The film often uses a healthy dose of computer imagery to enhance the 2D visuals, most of which blend really well to create a sense of depth when required. The only real misstep of this technique is towards the end: an outwards panning aerial shot of Edinburgh that very nearly drags the viewer out of the warmth offered by the traditional animation entirely.
Materialism. Relationships. Love. Despair. Hope. All of these emotions and more are covered in The Illusionist. The only downside is that these emotions are not tied together within a tightly focused narrative. Although never anything less than captivating due to its beautiful imagery, the slender runtime can feel prolonged at times. This lessens the impact of an ending that nonetheless still manages to evoke an appropriate sense of sadness. It may prove controversial, but I personally feel that a more traditional storytelling technique with actual voice acting would have married the visuals with a stronger narrative pull, resulting in a potentially better film.
It is interesting to note that The Illusionist is based on an unproduced script that French director and actor Jacques Tati wrote in 1956. Reading about Tati’s life (specifically his shameful abandonment of his first child) one cannot help but feel that there was so much more of this story to be told. What we are ultimately left with is a charming yet underdeveloped tale of a dying art and a man who finally learns to let it go.
7 OUT OF 10