The Oscar-nominated, animated film by Sylvain Chomet continues in the style of his previous work, The Triplets of Belleville, and just like that 2003 curiosity, this cartoon is equally brilliant, equally funny, and equally entertaining in its observance of human behavior and simple human interaction.
The year is 1959. We begin in Paris where Chomet introduces us to a French magician named Monsieur Tatischeff who is middle-aged and very tall. He has quite long legs and a short body. He almost seems as if he's walking on stilts. He wears a particular kind of suit but in various colors. He has a signature trick, which involves him pulling a rabbit out of a hat.
The rabbit in fact seems to be his only companion, his only family in the world. Tatischeff is a lonely man, and he's not just lonely in his personal life, but in his professional one as well. Most times when he gets on stage, the crowd in front of him is so sparse as to be almost non-existent. If Tatischeff had success as a magician before, he clearly doesn't any more. If Tatischeff had friends and family before, he doesn't now.
He travels around from city to city, from Paris to London to Edinburgh. His performances aren't great. His receptions are even less so. It's a wonder why he doesn't simply retire. What is he holding onto? Is he merely continuing his magic act because he has nothing else?
At a hotel after one of his shows, Tatischeff meets a young redhead who loves high heels named Alice. She immediately takes a liking to Tatischeff. It seems due to his magic tricks, but an instant connection is formed as she innocently searches his hotel room and learns the two are perhaps more similar than outwardly apparent.
Tatischeff and Alice bond on a wordless level. The screenplay for The Illusionist has no dialogue. Chomet introduces other characters but none of them talk. Like the The Triplets of Belleville, the characters communicate through gestures only. Jacques Tati's screenplay rationalizes this by making Tatischeff and Alice speak different languages.
Because Tatischeff and Alice don't talk to each other because they can't talk to each other, Chomet beautifully develops their relationship in merely forcing the audience to watch how they react to one another. Chomet stresses that a father-daughter relationship is what he wanted to explore, but watching the film I got a more romantic vibe, even though the tone never rises about platonic.
Whether or not it's romantic or platonic, a love between them is obvious, an unexpected caring forms that at times could seem like an illusion and Chomet gets us to watch and determine on our own if it's real or if it's pulled magically out of a hat.
Beyond that, it's brilliant that Chomet utilizes no dialogue because it makes you focus on the visuals. It may not have the budget or the advance 3D technology of fellow Oscar nominees Toy Story 3 or How to Train Your Dragon, but Chomet's creation is arguably far greater a sight to behold. Every scene, every character, is rich in design. Inspired by Disney animation from the 1960s, Chomet's hand-drawn work here far exceeds anything the mouse studio pumped out then or now in terms of look.
Oddly, what I found strangely absorbing is Chomet's lack of close-ups. I don't recall a single shot or frame that was a close-up of Tatischeff or Alice's face. It was only medium or wide-shots of these characters. Chomet didn't embrace a lot of different camera angles or complex setups or edits. Chomet would establish a lens position, usually a wide-one and he let his characters walk into it, perform, and then walk out.
While this might seem dull or boring, it really does allow the audience to absorb the scenery and absorb the behaviors of the characters, their movements, allowing true appreciation of Chomet's hand-drawn animation. Again, this film is nothing if not a study of human behavior and observing the characters' actions and letting that be what defines them.
In addition to Tatischeff and Alice, Chomet provides a handful of other, colorful characters to study, including a ventriloquist, a clown at the end of his rope, three acrobats and a slightly effeminate rock star. We watch the way they laugh, the way they cry, the way they jump and the way they roll on the ground.
While it's all about one man's disillusionment about what he does and his love for a young girl, the film remains a funny spectacle on a superficial level for children to sit and enjoy. Even though it brings out deeper issues about letting go, aging and coming-of-age, it's not as heavy as one might expect from a heavy-thinking, French animator.
A lot of scenes parallel one another, but perhaps the most wondrous is the scene where Tatischeff runs into a movie theater and playing on screen is Jacques Tati's Oscar-winning film Mon Oncle (1958), which features a character named Mr. Hulot, which bears a striking resemblance to Tatischeff.
Five Stars out of Five.
Rated PG for thematic elements and smoking.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 20 mins.