The Illusionist (Sony Pictures Classics, R)

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The best reason to see The Illusionist is the art, which is a perfect match to the film’s mood.



A sweetly nostalgic melancholy pervades The Illusionist, an animated film directed by Sylvain Chomet from an unproduced screenplay by Jacques Tati. The story concerns a magician who looks and acts a lot like Tati, and who has fallen hopelessly behind the times. It’s the early 1960s and his art of pulling rabbits out of hats and plucking wine glasses from the air has been displaced by livelier forms of entertainment including a Beatles-like rock band.

In truth the magician may always have been a second-rater, but not knowing any other trade he must keep working at this one, albeit in more and more obscure venues and to smaller and smaller crowds. He does a show at a pub in the Western Isles of Scotland where they’ve just gotten electricity and the crowd is as entertained by watching a light bulb go on and off as they are by his act. As electricity also enables the pub to have a jukebox, it is implied that live entertainment may be doomed even in so rural a location.

The most appreciative member of his audience is a young girl, apparently an orphan, who works as a charwoman and is still innocent enough to believe in magic—in fact she thinks that the tricks the magician does are real. When he moves on to his next gig she quite unexpectedly follows and expects him to produce a ferry ticket for her out of thin air the way he seems to do in his stage act.

The magician is a kind man and pays her passage, and the two set up housekeeping, father and daughter style, in a theatrical boarding house in Edinburgh. This location provides the opportunity for some of the film’s best sight gags (with a building full of ventriloquists, acrobats and clowns you would expect no less). At the same time, this section of the film provides some of the most poignant moments as the aging magician is reduced to working in shop windows and moonlighting at various other jobs in order to provide for his foster daughter. She’s also a kind soul who cooks and keeps house for him and she shares their meager fare with other performers in the boarding house who are also down on their luck. But just as men grow older, so do little girls grow up and eventually their paths must diverge, although not without a final gift of wisdom from the magician.

The best reason to see The Illusionist is the art, which is a perfect match to the film’s mood, as well as its celebration of old-fashioned entertainment. The animations were partly drawn by hand and are both realistic and nostalgic, resembling watercolors while paying close attention to nuances of shading (several times we see the sun rise or set on a cityscape). The detail is amazing and the artists capture the character of each of the major locations: Paris, London, the Western Isles and most of all Edinburgh—probably not coincidentally the location of Studio Django, who did the animation (in the original script the Edinburgh section is actually set in Eastern Europe).

The story is less successful. It’s sketchy and refuses to pick a lane, settling primarily into melancholic realism with interludes of slapstick that would no doubt have been hilarious had the real Tati performed them but feel entirely routine when performed by an animated version of him. The script trades a bit too much on magical realism and requires major suspension of disbelief with regard to how people actually function in the world. Finally, there are far too many gags that are just not funny and too much repetition of the same material (one drunken Scotsman gag is a lot funnier than five).

There are some other oddities in this film. One is that scenes often end abruptly, as if the animators were on strict deadline and didn’t have time to finish their work properly. Another is the inclusion of occasional dialogue in an otherwise silent film. This technique is a hallmark of Tati’s live-action films, but it feels intrusive here in a film that might have worked better as a silent with music. Perhaps Jacques Tati could have produced a successful movie from this script, but we’ll never know. What we do know is that this animated adaptation is a hit-and-miss affair whose sensitive artwork is far superior to its creaky storytelling. | Sarah Boslaugh

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