The summer of this year has been incredibly barren; devoid of the huge numbers of blockbuster releases we’ve become accustomed to. Aside from a couple of films (Inception, naturally, and Toy Story 3), nothing has really made that big of a splash. And The Illusionist, a quiet French film utilising hand-drawn animation, was quite a strange way to end the season.
After having projects cancelled and being sacked as director of The Tale of Desperaux, The Illusionist (or L’illusioniste, of course) is Sylvain Chomet’s first feature film since the wonderful, Oscar-nominated Belleville Rendez-vous (a.k.a. The Triplets of Belleville), which came out in 2003. Belleville was of course overshadowed by Finding Nemo and Brother Bear in that year, and perhaps hasn’t received the attention it deserves – if you haven’t seen it, you definitely should. Unfortunately though, while The Illusionist shares much in common with Chomet’s first feature, especially in the visual department, it doesn’t reach the same level of quality.
The Illusionist follows magician Tatischeff as he travels to Scotland in search of work, and a young girl he meets who becomes enchanted by him. The movie traces their exploits in Edinburgh, along with the downfall of performance art; the impending era of the television looming over the film’s clowns, acrobats and ventriloquists.
Before I comment on anything else, I have to, inevitably, mention the animation. Just watch the trailer. This movie is absolutely beautiful. The characters are brilliantly exaggerated, everything is highly-detailed, picturesque, and ever-so-slightly sketchy, and there is often a warm orange glow in place that just makes you feel right at home. The colour palette is perfect. If you’ve seen Belleville Rendez-vous, you’ll know what I mean. As with Ponyo (which I only got to see this year, thanks to the horrendous two-year gap between its Japanese release and its UK release), it would be entirely possible just to bathe in the artwork without paying attention to what is actually going on. A lovely soundtrack accompanies all of this, presenting a superbly calm atmosphere.
The setting of The Illusionist of course allows for an even more comfortable feel – there is something very homely about the late 1950s here; old hotels and shabby theatres with old-time vaudeville acts. The film takes place in France and London for brief periods at the beginning, both of which look great, and then moves to Scotland for the majority of the running time. The cities and the countryside both manage to look equally charming. It’s such a shame that studios favour CGI so much now. Sure – CGI can be amazing too, but it’d be nice if there was some sort of balance.
As in Belleville, a lot of the characters are stereotypical caricatures of certain types of people, and all of them are delightful. Moving away from the Americans featured in Chomet’s first film, this time around we have parodies of the beginnings of 1960s rock culture in England, the English garden party-going upper class, and countryside-dwellers of small villages in Scotland, who all give a round of applause when the local pub turns a lightbulb on. Everyone is quirky, endearing, and a joy to watch (especially the drunken Scot), in a similar way to characters in Disney’s better periods.
But when it comes down to story, The Illusionist doesn’t manage to impress. The truth of it is…nothing really happens. There seems to be no real goal or end in sight for the plot; various things just happen, and none of it seems to really go anywhere. Perhaps with some sort of aim, it would have been easier to root for Tatischeff or Alice, but they are not given any real cause; there isn’t actually anything to root for, really. As in Belleville Rendez-vous, there is little to no dialogue, with characters only emitting the occasional “no,” “hello,” or an unplaceable mumble. It didn’t seem to be a problem in that film, but it seems as though The Illusionist could have benefitted from actual speech. That said, the characters are likeable enough as they stand, so I guess the issue actually lies with the overarching plot, or lack thereof. Silent, visual characters can work just fine (here’s looking at you, Mr. Bean).
There is a bittersweet sentimentality present in the film too, although that’s not a problem. Whereas a lot of animated movies present an overtly positive message for the little ones, the ambience here is quite downtrodden. It’s sad to see the various acts put out of business, and witnessing the brief glimpses into the lives of the depressed clown and the ventriloquist can be incredibly somber.
The story behind the making of the film is likely the reason for this nature – it is adapted from a screenplay written by the late French writer, director and actor Jacques Tati. Tati wrote the script back in the 1950s, and director Chomet believes it was written for his (Tati’s) estranged daughter, Sophie. The film is dedicated to Sophie, who suggested Chomet adapt the script in animated form, but who sadly passed away a few months before the film’s release. The character of Tatischeff is also thought to be based on Tati himself, the illusionist keeping a picture of a young girl with him, which is not explained outright in the actual movie.
Yet these sentiments and emotions are not portrayed as strongly through the final film as one might expect. The Illusionist resultantly feels highly personal, which is of course respectable; but because of this, it doesn’t manage to connect with an objective audience so much. More of a direct story could have fused this link. While the characters are visually endearing, like silent characters in classic cartoons, the film’s slow pace and lack of events brings about a certain detachedness. I can’t help but think of Toy Story 3 (my personal pick for film of the summer; and the only one released over the last few months that blew me away), which had bucket loads of emotion pouring out all over the place. Don’t get me started on Pixar’s genius there – it was damn hard not to cry during it. But The Illusionist isn’t involving enough to bring about the same attachment.
Due to the lack of a sort of straight-up narrative with peaks of action and excitement, this is definitely not a film to take the kids to see; they will probably get very, very bored. There was direction in Belleville Rendez-vous, as it was great watching the quest of Madame Souza try to rescue her son. This idea of destination is missing from Chomet’s second film. At 80 minutes, it doesn’t become completely unbearable, it is just incredibly slow. It’s a shame; the aesthetic beauty of the film makes me want to love it. But it’s not enough to compensate for the pacing and plot.
The Illusionist is getting a limited release in the USA on 25th December, having premiered at the Berlinale Film Festival months ago in February, and seems to be receiving sporadic release dates and festival screenings across other countries (it’s already out in some places). It’s difficult to know whether to recommend it – I’m sure some people will absolutely love it, but some of you will be utterly bored by it. If you enjoyed Belleville Rendez-vous, you should definitely check it out. For me, it is a wonderful testament to hand-drawn animation and how fantastic it can look; but this film is a bit too slow and lacks direction. With a little more spark, excitement, and storyline, The Illusionist could have been magical.
With The Illusionist, this summer ended with a whimper, but then not much came out in May, June, July or August to cause any sort of big bang. Considering that summer 2011 sees the release of Captain America, Thor, Kung Fu Panda 2, Cars 2, Pirates 4, Transformers 3, X-Men: First Class, a new Winnie the Pooh, and the final Harry Potter…it’s difficult not to feel a little annoyed, even if all of those are sequels or parts of a franchise. But there will be no shortage of big releases next year; let’s hope most of them are good.