Lord of Illusions

'The Illusionist' may be the year's most poignant, strange animated film

Among this year's three Oscar nominations for best animated films, there's one that many might not recognize. Sylvain Chomet's somber, beautiful The Illusionist managed to sneak in there and take a slot away from Hollywood animation behemoths like Tangled and Despicable Me.

While I love me some Tangled, and feel it should've gotten nominated instead of How to Train Your Dragon (Toy Story 3 being the other, and well deserving, nominee), it's nice to see the work of Chomet getting recognition.

Chomet was also nominated in 2004 for his beautifully grotesque and somewhat bonkers The Triplets of Belleville, a wondrously strange piece of work that felt like an animated version of a live-action Terry Gilliam film. (But not, as I feel it is necessary to point out, Terry Gilliam's well-known animated work for Monty Python. That was a very different animation style.)

While Belleville was outrageously strange with a slight touch of poignancy, The Illusionist basically flip-flops that formula and goes for something more emotionally tinged with bizarre flourishes.

The Illusionist tells the story of the title character, an aging, affable, yet talented magician on the downslope of his career. We see him go from grand theaters to bar gigs and private parties and, finally, a department store window in a futile attempt to keep his vocation alive and viable. It's actually a remarkably sad movie for a cartoon.

Along the way, the Illusionist meets up with Alice, a young barmaid of an undisclosed age who tags along with him as he travels to Scotland looking for work. While his age is never stated, the drawing of the Illusionist gives him the appearance of somebody around 65 years old, which makes him somewhere in the area of half a century older than Alice.

While their relationship could be seen as creepy, Chomet has written them as having more of a father-daughter dynamic, with no real traces of romance. The Illusionist takes odd jobs when he can't find entertainment work, most notably at a 24-hour garage where he doesn't last a day, in an effort to provide for Alice. We see him constantly worrying, tabulating his living costs, considering his earnings, and then splurging on a nice coat or shoes for Alice despite the meager paychecks.

While the Illusionist labors to pay his and Alice's hotel bill and keep her in fine clothes, he has less time for home interaction and starts shunning Alice. She wanders out into the streets of Scotland, catches the eye of a boy, and it's easy to see where things are going.

Like Belleville, The Illusionist is rich with little touches that go deeper than your average animated film. It's old school, hand-drawn animation, which gives it a sort of rustic, antique quality. Chomet gives his film very little dialogue, allowing the visuals to tell the story. Characters do the little things—like quickly adjusting their clothes—that make them more "human." I was reminded of the grandmother in Belleville constantly adjusting her glasses.

While the movie isn't a laugh riot, and isn't meant to be, it does have its share of giggles. The Illusionist's bunny rabbit is an ornery little rascal. Drawn realistically and full of angst, it wants to be free, causing it to freak out inside of its pen or a magic hat. When admirers, and even the Illusionist, try to pick the rabbit up, their fingertips are met with vicious nipping. The beast is the distant cousin of the man-eating rabbit from Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

Supporting characters—such as flamboyant rock band members, angular singing chanteuses and snobby rich guys—give the movie some nice, odd flavoring. Chomet has a gift for humorous exaggeration, and his characterizations go well beyond stereotype into a realm that is exclusively his own. If a Chomet character were to cameo within a Disney cartoon, it would be instantly recognizable, and perhaps a little jarring.

In Chomet's world, a ventriloquist meeting similarly hard times as the Illusionist must give up his dummy for the pawnshop window, where it can't fetch a dollar. A sad clown gets beaten in the street by young ones, and is driven to the brink of suicide. In the clown's case, a bowl of rabbit stew from Alice's stove comes in the nick of time, temporarily taking the clown's mind off of forced death in favor of a tasty meal.

And, of course, the meat content of said stew sets the Illusionist on a frantic search for his furry stage partner, who seems to be missing come dinnertime. It's just another example of Chomet's sly, dark humor.

The film is based on an original screenplay by writer/actor/director Jacques Tati, who died in 1982. The Illusionist character has been drawn in Tati's likeness, and Chomet provides a unique moment where the character ducks into a theater and glimpses a few moments of the Tati film Mon Oncle. The Illusionist is actually gazing upon the real-life inspiration for his drawn character because it is Jacques Tati on the movie screen. It's perhaps the film's most blessedly original moment.

In addition to directing and writing the screenplay, Chomet composed the score, no small feat considering that it is an excellent blend of slow jazz and moody piano. It's actually one of 2010's better scores.

The Illusionist isn't necessarily 2010's best animated film (my pick would be Toy Story 3), but it is certainly unique. I'm hoping Chomet picks his next project soon, and takes less than seven years for his next movie. I definitely want to see more from this guy.

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