Sony Pictures Classics "The Illusionist," directed by Sylvain Chomet.
Animated films play, in some ways, a game of one-upmanship.
Good to great:
Director: Sylvain Chomet.
Cast: Voices of Jean-Claude Donda, Eilidh Rankin.
Rating: PG for thematic elements and smoking.
Note: At Harkins Camelview.
Bigger screens, more jaw-dropping 3-D effects and an even-cuter-than-last-time sidekick that doubles as the toy in a Happy Meal are practically requirements of the genre. (Note: Requirements not demanded of Pixar films.)
"The Illusionist" is a throwback in many ways - and in the best possible way (it was nominated for a best animated-feature Oscar). Sylvain Chomet's film takes an unproduced Jacques Tati script meant for live action (and presumably for Tati himself) and turns it into a lovely appreciation of Tati and a loving, bittersweet look at the end of the 1950s, before entertainers like the magician of the title were displaced by rock bands and other more visceral acts.
Chomet's defiantly two-dimensional artwork is warm, inviting, beautiful, establishing immediately a comfort level, at least for audiences of, ahem, a certain age. (Younger audiences weaned on such fare as "Robots" or "Fly Me to the Moon" may have a different reaction.)
The French magician, called Tatischeff (Tati's real name), is tall, has a unique carriage and wears pants that are too short; in other words, he looks like Tati. He's a proud man, standing at attention in the wings while he waits to go on following encore after encore of the rock band (the Buffoons) that plays before him., his erect stature broken only when his uncooperative rabbit keeps jumping out of Tatischeff's hat.
The world around him is changing. He's shown the door at one venue after another, before embarking for Edinburgh, Scotland, where his stages get smaller and smaller until, finally, he's doing tricks in a store window. It's not his talent that's lacking, it's just that his time has passed. Audiences want something different, something he's unable to provide.
However, he does acquire one true fan: Alice, a young chambermaid for whom he becomes a father figure of sorts. He offers her the only bed in his flat, while he sleeps on the couch. He buys her nicer shoes, and eventually nicer ones still. Then a coat - all this done without fanfare. Alice is not unappreciative, but what she doesn't know is that Tatischeff must take on other jobs to provide these things for her. This he does without complaint (or much sleep).
Why? Tatischeff is one of those characters in film who simply do what they must, because they must. He expects no greater reward than simply to keep doing it.
There is a relationship here, certainly, and as the girl grows older and finds romantic love with a young man, it grows heartbreaking. And yet we aren't angered by her moving on. Chomet simply portrays it as a part of life, of their lives. She's growing up. If the illusionist is saddened, he doesn't show it. He takes it in stride, as he did the dwindling of his audience.
The film has dialogue - Jean-Claude Donda is the voice of Tatischeff, and Eilidh Rankin that of the girl - but because they don't speak the same language, words aren't always necessary. It plays almost as a silent film. What they say isn't as important as how they say it, and what we see.
And what we see is painstakingly produced beauty, rendered with grace and charm. Like Tatischeff, the film works its own kind of old-school magic. Unlike his illusions, however, those of "The Illusionist" never grow old.
by Bill Goodykoontz The Arizona Republic Feb. 2, 2011 03:38 PM