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REVIEW: The Illusionist

By Philip Martin

This article was published February 11, 2011 at 2:56 a.m.

the-manager-of-the-emporium-theatre-left-greets-tatischeff-the-magician-in-sylvain-chomets-the-illusionist

The manager of the Emporium Theatre (left) greets Tatischeff the magician in Sylvain Chomet’s The Illusionist.

— Last year wasn’t a great one for animated films - even if you count yourself as one of the adults who cried at the end of Toy Story 3, you must admit things got pretty thin after that. How to Train Your Dragon and Despicable Me and (they tell me) Tangled were all nice little movies, but hardly classics.

I would have liked to have voted for The Illusionist as the best animated film of 2010, but I didn’t manage to see it until after my voting deadline. And that was thanks to a friend who’s a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association (maybe I should get a TV gig; BFCA gets all the best screeners).

Anyway, it’s a wonderful, quiet little movie that is grown-up and kind of magical, although the film itself argues against the existence of fairy dust. It’s a near-silent movie, set (like The Eagle, which also opens this week) mainly in Scotland, but with an unmistakably French protagonist. It’s not subtitled and you won’t need them, for it’s only the tone of the mumbling and mutterings that matter, and they’re easy enough to pick up in context.

The film is based on an unproduced script by the late French comedic filmmaker Jacques Tati, who was in his youth a professional rugby player and later a mime. Tati was famous for playing a character called Monsieur Hulot, a socially inept, pompous but lovable dreamer whose encounters with technology, modern architectural design and consumer culture were the stuff of a series of films in the ’50s and ’60s. (Hulot is also the secret father of Peter Sellers’ Clouseau and Rowan Aktinson’s Bean.)

Sylvain Chomet, the creator of The Triplets of Belleville, took Tati’s script, about a vaudeville magician mopping up on what might be his last tour. The character looks quite a bit like Tati, and his name, revealed discretely, is Tatischeff. And the movie feels quite like an animated version of a Hulot movie, with the same gentle rhythms and confusions.

Our illusionist travels from Paris to provincial Scotland, where he performs in a pub and intrigues a young girl, a Keane eyed gamine who evidently believes there’s actual magic in the man’s old-fashioned act. Too bad for him the rest of the world seems unimpressed; rock ’n’ roll has reared its pompadoured head; it’s becoming harder and harder to impress an audience with an obstinate bunny and a chain of silk handkerchiefs.

The girl follows him after he departs the pub engagement and chastely shares his rooms as he works a city music hall and the relationship - paternal but with a tinge of romance - deepens. Soon Tatischeff is reduced to working department store windows, to buy his acquired protegee dresses and shoes he can ill afford.

The Illusionist isn’t a terribly funny film, or even - if you come right down to it - a terribly profound film. It’s a movie that creates and exploits a certain melancholy mood, and had Tati himself produced a version of this film it might have smacked of self-pity. Yes, the old days are done. This too will pass.

But in its antique colored light and the stubborn persistence of its uncomputerized 2-D, The Illusionist evokes a quality of feeling that Toy Story 3 did not. It’s not manipulative; it tells a kind of bitter truth. It’s not just that we outgrow our toys, it’s that sometimes the world outgrows us, and it’s all we can do to leave the stage with a modicum of dignity.

The Illusionist 90 Cast: Animated, with voices that mutter in barely recognizable muttered French and English Director: Sylvain Chomet Rating: PG, for thematic elements Running time: 80 minutes

MovieStyle, Pages 33 on 02/11/2011

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