Theatrical Review: The Illusionist

Originally, this was not going to be the movie that I was intending to see this weekend.  That would’ve been Unknown with Liam Neeson.  But unexpectedly (for me, anyway), Sylvain Chomet’s newest movie, The Illusionist came here to St. Louis, and further at one of my favorite theatres in town, so I had to leap at the chance to see it.

The Illusionist is a 2010 release and something you won’t necessarily find at your local multiplex, it is an art house movie, but with absolute universal appeal.  It’s also one of the three nominated movies for Best Animated Feature Film for the 2010 Academy Awards (the other two being Toy Story 3 and How To Train Your Dragon.

Tatischeff is a stage musician whose better days are now behind him.  As this is taking place, Rock ‘N Roll music is making it’s debut and television is becoming more and more pervasive.  Tatischeff is eking out a living, playing to very small audiences.  His act is appealing to a drunken Scotsman who happens to see him performing at a wedding.  The Scotsman invites Tatischeff to come to his town to perform where he’s actually a big hit with his act.  But the biggest appeal lies with a young serving girl named Alice, who’s not just drawn to Tatischeff because of his act, but also because of great kindness that he’s shown her.

Tatischeff leaves the small village, and unexpectedly finds Alice coming with him.  Soon Tatischeff finds more work performing at a theatre in Edinburgh, where he’s also faced with not just providing for himself, but Alice as well.

Previously, Sylvain Chomet really impressed me with his prior animated feature, The Triplets of Belleville. Now adapting an original, but unproduced, screenplay from French filmmaker Jacques Tati, we have this latest film and it’s an absolutely beautiful experience.

I am not familiar with any of Tati’s previous films.  Thanks to Ignatiy Vishnevetsky of the new Ebert Presents At The Movies (an excellent show that if you’re reading this, you should be watching as well), I’ve now sudden interest in seeing Tati’s Playtime. In addition, The Illusionist itself makes reference to Tati’s Mon Oncle. Those two movies, along with Tati’s M. Hulot’s Holiday are all available on Netflix Instant Play and have all been added to my own queue.  So now, I’m very much looking forward to discovering Tati’s work for myself, and if The Illusionist is any indication, I expect I’m in for a fantastic time.

The animation in The Illusionist is absolutely incredible.  This is traditional hand-drawn, 2D animation (with some digital enhancement).  What’s amazing about it is the subtlety of character that’s here and just how much Chomet has going on in any given scene.  Traditionally with American animation, we’re used to one major focus in a scene, and while that is here, there is just as much attention paid to all of little background elements.

There is actually very little spoken dialogue in the film.  When it does come up, it’s not necessarily meant to be taken literally, but more as expressing a feeling behind a moment, and it works.  We’re drawn into the characters of Tatischeff, Alice and their relationship purely through the visuals, with the small bits of dialogue being more scene punctuations more than anything else.

The Illusionist is a beautiful, bittersweet film that amazed me not just due to it’s technical prowess, but also due to it’s characters and the life they live throughout the piece.  It has genuine moments of comedy (though gentle), pathos and is a fine example of the type of adult animation that we should have more of.  I was sad to see that we only had about ten people in our audience to see this film (though we were seeing this at a later show time) and this deserves to be seen by more.  Toy Story 3 was one of my favorite movies of 2010, and I expect it to win the Oscar for Best Animated Feature Film, but I wouldn’t be unhappy at all if The Illusionist came in and took that award.  Very much highly, highly recommended.

About Darren Goodhart

Darren Goodhart is a 44-year old St. Louis-based Graphic Designer and Illustrator (and former comic book artist) who's been seeing movies all his life, but on an almost weekly basis in theatres for the last 20 years and owns nearly 1,000 DVDs for his home theatre. He's learned a lot about film over the 20 year period, and has taken his appreciation beyond the mainstream. His favorite types of film are mostly genre entertainment, but he also enjoys a wide range of drama, action and cult-y stuff from around the world, and is currently re-discovering a love affair with lower budget exploitation and genre films from the 70s and early 80s. He doesn't try to just dismiss any film, but if there's a bias against one, he'll certainly tell you that in the space of his reviews.

20. February 2011 by Darren Goodhart
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