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3 reviews, 2 user ratings

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Illusionist, The (2010)
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by Jay Seaver

"A master entertainer given new life."
5 stars

At first, "The Illusionist" looks amazingly simple and sweet - two kind people, perhaps not used to having their generosity returned, are lucky enough to find each other and create a life together. To say more may perhaps be to say too much, but I don't think it is crossing a line to say that there's not a minute of this beautifully animated movie that is not beautiful - even the sad parts. Maybe especially the sad parts.

It is 1959, and M. Tatischeff is a stage magician of some skill and a charmingly formal demeanor on-stage and off. His next booking takes him to England, but the crowd he sees there vanishes after the band they came to see plays. A drunken Scotsman likes the act, though, and brings him north to play at his pub. There, he meets Alice, the maid who cleans his room and washes his shirts, and is so surprised when he buys her a new pair of shoes that she stows away with him when he moves on to Glasgow. There, they move into a hotel filled with other performers, but it's hard for a stage magician to provide for himself and his rabbit, let alone a teenage girl whose eyes light up when she passes shop windows.

Tatischeff's name is a reference to Jacques Tati, the French writer, director, and actor who made a series of not-quite-silent films around this time period, and indeed wrote the original screenplay of The Ilusionist but never filmed it. It is not necessary to be familiar wtih Tatii's films to appreciate this one; director Sylvain Chomet's own style is just as apparent, if not more so. And yet, in the middle of the same sort of caricature as his previous film, The Triplets of Belleville, Tatischeff's ancestry is obvious; he looks like Tati and has the same combination of straight-backed dignity and befuddlement as Tati's M. Hulot, and even moves the same way. He's not Hulot, though when he inevitably finds his way into a theater showing Mon Oncle, there's a moment when previously unknown brothers seem to recognize each other. Chomet, his animators, and voice actor Jean-Claude Donda make Tatischeff a distinct character, with his own charm, quirks, and personality.

Alice doesn't have quite such an obvious model, and some may have a hard time with her, as her background is left largely to the imagination. She can seem inconsiderate and a bit of a leach if one sees her as an adult; posit that she's an orphaned teen, and the same actions are rather more innocent. She's wonderful to watch, retaining her girl-next-door appeal even as she dresses up and matures. Like Tatischeff, she's less exaggerated than the supporting characters, though still full of personality. One thing that Chomet does very well that the audience might not consciously notice is that in her first appearance amid a jumble of other characters, Alice jumps out at the audience. Watch her, we're subconsciously told, she's important.

She, Tatischeff, and his rabbit (who bites!) are in the middle of dozens of funny and/or sweet bits. ot all are laugh-out-loud funny - the humor gets dark on occasion - but many are. The troublemaking rabbit is a stitch, and Chomet displays great comic timing - the sort of down-to-the-frame stuff that animation does better than anything else. The broad supporting characters are a riot. And when the gags slow down for a moment, they're generally replaced with stuff that elicits a different kind of smile, displays of simple kindness and affection.

If that were all The Illusionist was, it would be an excellent, entertaining film; that Chomet takes strands from that and weaves them into melancholy may make it a great one. We laugh at the buffoonish antics of pop band The Britoons when they're preventing Tatischeff from appearing on stage, but their music reappearing as the film goes on reminds us that this was a time of change for pop culture - the traditional music hall was giving way to television and rock & roll. Meanwhile, Alice is growing up; it's a time of change all around. The last act, though no more reliant on words than the rest, is a beautiful look at the nature of that change: How some come into their own, and some are left behind, either adapting or despairing.

Not completely despairing, of course, and though it doesn't come to the end that looked inevitable at the beginning, it does finish in a way that that both feels right as the viewer is sitting before it and gives him or her something to chew on later. At the very least, its is a collection of note-perfect moments that add up to a sometimes expected, but sometimes surprising, whole.

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originally posted: 02/09/11 16:02:40
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2010 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2010 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2010 Telluride Film Festival For more in the 2010 Telluride Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

10/19/11 Magic Lovingly drawn, nostalgic and sweet comedy turns to brutal tragedy. 5 stars
7/17/11 Annie G Characters were stereotypes, and the plot was nearly non-existent. 3 stars
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  25-Dec-2010 (PG)
  DVD: 10-May-2011


  DVD: 10-May-2011

Directed by
  Sylvain Chomet

Written by
  Sylvain Chomet
  Jacques Tati

  Jean-Claude Donda
  Edith Rankin

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