When Pixar’s Up! came out I couldn’t help but feel disappointed. Both Up! and Wall-E strayed into dark, adult thematic areas, but had to hop over to the kid’s table to maintain commercial viability. Thankfully, there are countries in the world where animation is held in equal regard to traditional filmmaking. The Illusionist is filled with a romance and poignancy that hits you in the gut and lets you deal with it sans cute adventuring. Thank God.
The year is 1959 and the world hasn’t become completely dominated by English as the “universal” language. When a French magician sets out to the U.K. to find work, he finds himself at a small village in Scotland, entertaining Gaelic speaking revelers. After his routine, one of the girls maintaining the inn becomes enchanted by his fancy handiwork. Separated by their respective lingua francas, the pair interact via noble gestures and find themselves in Edinburgh, where he practices his magic, and she eyes shop displays…
Directed by Sylvain Chomet (The Triplets of Belleville) and written by Jacques Tati, this tale of characters connected without language and destroyed by globalization, is a film for which the term “gut wrenching experience” was created and is made all the more fascinating by its audacious move to be silent. I don’t mean pre-sound film recording silence, but that one full sentence is uttered in the entire film. Chomet brilliantly uses this silence to convey humor and the undiluted sentiments of his characters. Though this may sound daunting, we forget film is a visual medium after all, and Chomet knows how to milk it for all it’s worth (this is not a film for people who enjoy the exposition lane on the film freeway).
Chomet spent five years working on The Illusionist, even creating a production studio in Edinburgh to handle the work. The visuals are beautiful, accurately capturing the awe inspiring presence of the Scottish Highlands, but it’s also a love letter to Edinburgh, with its attention to detail and an array of famous locations on full display.*
Unfortunately, I must also add that there are some uncanny valley moments. 1) I could swear they used some motion capture to get some movements realistic, which could be unsettling when combined with an animated human. And 2) All moving objects look removed from their settings. Sure, you watch old school Disney films and objects that move are brighter and the still background is darker–but my unease stemmed from something different. Instead of both background and character being hand drawn, the involvement of computers elbows the animations into another area that doesn’t blend well. These are some of the issues I picked up on, but it still didn’t completely undercut the stunningness of the world presented.
The film’s message, “We’re all waiting for our talents to be exploited by capitalism and our relationships replaced by consumer objects,” is the type of damning conclusion that settles in your belly with its veracity. Spending almost an hour and a half with these characters without words provides a unique window into their psyche, which is how The Illusionist pulls off its sucker punch coupe commentary in a believable and un-soap box manner.
The Illusionist‘s engrossing visuals and intelligent message trumps the $400 million dollar wizardry of Avatar, but is accessible to that same audience just as easily as the art house kids. If you weren’t already in love with Chomet for The Triplettes of Belleville, this should solidify your affections
*I’ve been living in Edinburgh for a full year and the film spoke of its romance in an honest way that had me realizing how much I’ve taken the city for granted (seagulls, wind, rain, but also the sunny green grass days with Edinburgh Castle and Arthur’s Seat dominating the skyline)