- Magicians Do Not Exist. These words break your heart in The Illusionist and raise the film to real “Art” – with a capital “A”. Basically, that message can be interpreted as “Artists” and, by implication, “Art” is dead, or (because I’m an animator) “Animation” is dead. The lonely guy, without his rabbit, riding off in the train is Sylvain Chomet, the film’s director, disillusioned with the clichéd and limited landscape that animation has become.
Of course, that’s my interpretation of the film’s story. I don’t want to go into it too deeply or I’d be giving too much away to those who haven’t seen it.
I saw the film again this week, and the experience was even more thrilling than the first viewing. Yes, there’s some mediocre, even poor animation. Some was done in Korea. You can see a few Long Shot walks of the girl that are wanting – she’s not even touching the ground properly. But it doesn’t matter. The film has so much character, such a deep story/screenplay that it’s impossible to ruin it with a few small scenes.
There are all those great ones. Long takes beautifully choreographed of Tatischeff drunkenly trying to ascend some stairs while avoiding a cleaner washing the floor. All the beautiful mists and waters and moving clouds and incidental characters – that all have character – that you couldn’t ask for more. The film captures atmosphere and place better than any animated film I can think of. This is a Scotland more affecting than the one in Local Hero, and that’s saying a lot.
The film tells the story of a travelling magician. He starts out in Paris at big venues and, over the course of the credit sequence, his performances go out to smaller and smaller houses. He eventually ends up in a small town in Scotland performing in a bar. There a young girl adopts him, and he feels compelled to take care of her – first buying her shoes, then more and more
clothes until he has to take on a second job to be able to afford the responsibility he has assumed. Eventually, lacking proper performance gigs, he descends to advertising/promotion in a store window. But he quickly rejects these jobs (“No, no, no, no”). He’s an Artist and he can’t lower himself to use his magic for commercialism. Better to work as a menial laborer in a garage. This all plays out without any dialogue – other than a few choice words that can be deciphered from the French, English or Scottish Gaelic. The characters all speak different languages, yet work to make themselves understood. A similar schema also worked in Chomet’s first film, The Triplettes of Belleville, but there it was purely musical. A song dominated the soundtrack and carried us along throughout the film. Here, we’re given a beautiful score (also written by Sylvain Chomet) that is combined with particular sound effects to help set the Scottish flavor and the world we’re inhabiting for 90 minutes.
The film is quiet and, like Jacques Tati’s live action films, slower moving. It’s told completely in Long Shots. There are no closeups. The nearest we come to that is a scene where the girl is up close to the camera, cooking. Tatischeff, the magician, walks near her to smell the food, but then walks back into the scene leaving the girl, still up front, in a half shot. It’s all wonderful planning and quite complicated to pull off, which Chomet and his animators do, well.
The film opens tomorrow, Christmas Day. I urge you to see it and judge for yourselves. Those of you who like the snappy, popping animation of Tangled, will probably not like The Illusionist. Regardless, this is the craft done stunningly well for less than a fifth of the budget for Tangled. It should be seen by anyone who loves animation and wants to see it stay alive.
I’ve seen most of this year’s films, and I’d rate this as one of the three or four top. Black Swan, True Grit and 127 Hours all are equal. The Illusionist fits somewhere among those four. As for animated films, only My Dog Tulip and How To Train Your Dragon are in the same ballpark – but far below Chomet’s masterpiece.
You can read a very positive NYTimes review by Manohla Dargis here.
A NYTimes feature showing some pencil test and animatic can be seen here. It’s appropriately silent.