Artful illusions

The Illusionist proves the traditional approach to animation is still going strong, with a twist

Cinema is filled with heartwarming underdog tales. These films however, with their obvious plot points and hard-fought moral victories, often end up feeling disingenuous, or at least a little hollow. Sylvain Chomet’s latest animated offering, The Illusionist, based on a screenplay by Jacques Tati, is an exception to this tiresome trend. The movie tells the story of an aging magician who travels from theatre to theatre performing, only to find his old-world sleight of hand constantly upstaged by flashier exhibitionists, ranging from sleazy jazz singers to attention-seeking pop stars. Along the way he meets a young girl who becomes his friend and companion, their relationship evolving throughout their journey.
The film’s theme of art being eclipsed by modernity is not only heartbreakingly sincere, but in many ways illustrates the challenges faced by its creator, as well as by the fate of animation itself. In 2003, Chomet’s first feature-length animated film, The Triplets of Belleville, was nominated for the Oscar for Best Animated Feature. It lost, and Finding Nemo took home the award instead. While Finding Nemo was certainly entertaining, it did not carry the artistry, subtlety, or titillating eccentricity of The Triplets of Belleville. With The Illusionist, Chomet has garnered another Oscar nomination – although the actual award may elude him once again, with animation heavyweight Pixar’s blockbuster Toy Story 3 also in the competition.
That Chomet’s work is under-appreciated is likely due to its uniqueness, and its disregard for the current norms of animated film. One of Chomet’s signatures is that his films largely rely on hand-drawn animation. In an industry where increasingly technological techniques dominate, this goes distinctly against the grain. In comparison to a film like Avatar, whose over-the-top, cutting edge graphics epitomize current trends in animation, The Illusionist’s hand drawn aesthetic can seem quaint. But this is part of the movie’s charm. Chomet’s aesthetic evokes a certain nostalgia, a sentiment which the story itself reinforces. The earnestness of hand-drawn characters, reminiscent of classic childhood favourites, may not be as obviously exciting as a new digitally-animated species, but it is infinitely more emotionally engaging.
In an even more obvious departure from the norm, Chomet avoids dialogue. With the exception of occasional interjections, The Illusionist is almost entirely free of speech – the story told primarily through gestures and images. While some may find this peculiar at first, it takes very little time to accommodate to this gentler and more nuanced form of storytelling. Without the boisterousness of words, watching the film becomes even more engrossing, as the audience is forced to pay closer attention to Chomet’s stylistic rendering of people and places. Chomet took the same approach to dialogue in The Triplets of Belleville, meaning that the French original needed no adaptation to be enjoyed by an anglophone audience. The smattering of dialogue in The Illusionist furthers linguistic harmony, featuring a mix of French, English, and Scots Gaelic, without hampering comprehension.  The lack of speech also makes room for a sublime soundtrack, while emphasizing the presence of every day sounds.
One of Chomet’s strong suits as a director is undoubtedly his ability to choose storylines that complement his aesthetic, as is the case with his adaptation of Tati’s screenplay. The Illusionist’s prominent travel narrative provides the opportunity to showcase the beautifully-rendered scenery typical of Chomet’s work. From rolling hills, to a quaint Scottish village, to the crowded confusion of Edinburgh, the scenery that unravels as the magician and his young friend journey from one place to the next is astounding in its intricately-drawn simplicity.
The Illusionist also provides Chomet with a wide variety of characters to play with. The world of a downtrodden musician is filled with gargantuan opera divas, drunken Scotsmen, and all manner of curious entertainment personas. The myriad idiosyncratic characters are realized with amazing, and often hilarious efficacy in Chomet’s aesthetic style, so well suited to the bizarre and the absurd. No one does a suicidal clown or a disproportionately tiny man quite like Chomet, and this film is full of them.
Even with its many eccentricities, the film is much more reserved than the critically acclaimed carnival of absurdity that is The Triplets of Belleville. While the characters were endearing, and the mood of lonesomeness and unavoidable change effectively expressed, the story felt less fleshed out than it could have been.  To an extent, however, this can be forgiven, as the somewhat facile nature of the plot parallels the general ethereality of the world Chomet is trying to portray.
The Illusionist isn’t a typical animation, and you likely won’t emerge from the theatre exhilarated, and shouting that you’d rather die than not live on Pandora. It is, however, a beautiful, nuanced, and nostalgic film, and may just be the most enjoyable experience now on offer in cinemas, not to mention the quietest.