Sylvain Chomet’s gleaming and painful The Illusionist is a gift to the world of animated films; it is a gift to fans of the great comedian Jaques Tati; and at the same time it is almost crushingly depressing and sad.
Chomet last gave us The Triplets of Belleville, a deep tribute to everything having to do with the Jazz Age built upon, of all things, an intrigue surrounding the Tour de France. It was nominated, and well deserved, the Academy Award for best animated feature in 2003, only to lose out to that year’s entry of generic crap from the Disney/Pixar Generic Crap Grindhouse. Seven years later The Illusionist suffered the same fate, which proves, as if we needed proof, that Oscars are Bought and Paid For.
Although one of The Illusionist’s deepest selling points is that it was made from an unproduced script by Tati — the man who, in the 1950s, returned cinema comedy to the realm of silent film with his delightful Mr. Hulot movies M. Hulot’s Holiday, Mon Oncle and Playtime — something tells me that the “script” in question was little more than an outline, created as it was on the fly in a love letter to his daughter. Chomet has fleshed it out quite considerably, and the result is probably a unique thing in film history: an eccentric and visually remarkable expansion of the animation genre (as you would expect if you’ve seen Triplets), and an altogether new and fresh Tati Hulot movie that manages in no small way to resurrect Tati himself and return him to the screen with all his mannerisms and comic timing intact.
I’m a fan both of animated films and of Tati and I could not believe what I was looking at. When, late in the movie, the animated Tati ducks into a cinema and is confronted by (and interacts with) his live action self, a viewer could be forgiven for believing that they had just seen an act of genuine magic.
However … even down to its title, The Illusionist is all about the sad fact that Magic does not exist, can not exist — that there are no magicians, only clever people doing their best to provide us with hope that dreams can come true, usually at cost to themselves. The film’s plot is but a whisper against your cheek and to break it down into a sentence or two here would shatter the spell that the movie casts — I won’t do it. Just be warned going in that as accomplished and exceptional as this film is (and ohmygosh it is almost overwhelming; if you are the right person for this kind of movie, it will take your breath away and make your heart contract) … that’s how sad it is. Broken dreams, broken lives, Magickal Spells that have run their course and evaporated, leaving us fully in the grip of life’s difficulties… don’t watch it (as I made the mistake of doing) on Thanksgiving.