Despite the increasing sophistication of computer animation, every once in awhile an old-fashioned, hand-drawn film comes along and reminds you that – at least as of 2010 – this was the technique that still felt truly alive.
The Illusionist is such a movie. For his source material, French writer-director Sylvain Chomet, who broke through with the wonderfully weird The Triplets of Belleville, turned to an unproduced script by the late satirist Jacques Tati (Playtime, Mr. Hulot’s Holiday). It turns out that the two sensibilities – Chomet’s empathetic eye for human frailty and Tati’s witty skewering of human folly – complement each other beautifully.
The Illusionist centers on an aging, vaudeville-style magician whose act has gone out of vogue in 1950s Europe, where theaters are being overtaken by the crass screeching of rock and roll. Still, the magician persists, with all the indefatigable nobility that characterized Tati’s most famous creation, Monsieur Hulot.
For cineastes, The Illusionist is a delightful homage. There are moments, as when fluttering pillow feathers are mistaken for snow, that you can imagine as elaborately staged Tati set pieces. In the silence (there is little dialogue) and story development you can also sense Charlie Chaplin’s influence, especially when the magician allows a young maid to tag along on his travels and becomes her unlikely benefactor. Their platonic relationship is sweet and ultimately heartbreaking, especially in the way they part at the movie’s supremely elegant end.
Ultimately, though, Chomet makes The Illusionist all his own, and that’s what makes it so special. His visual style – I’ve described it before as lovely scribbling – is endlessly inventive, especially when it comes to people. Even Pixar’s artists can get trapped in a visual theme for their characters, while Chomet’s drawings are nearly as varied as humanity itself. Among the unforgettable faces in The Illusionist are the towering magician, constantly ducking through doorways; a billowing opera singer; and a Scottish boatman whose kilt blows dangerously in the wind.
Then there are the landscapes, which seem to sink deeper and deeper into the screen (without, it’s worth noting, the help of 3-D). Like some of the first animated features – Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs comes to mind – Chomet’s world is at once rooted in reality and wondrously magical. If 2-D animated films soon become relics, The Illusionist will be one of the final treasures of the art form.