The Illusionist. It is being released Christmas Day in New York and Los Angeles and will expand from there, especially if the film receives an Academy Award nomination for Best Animated Feature, as it is widely expected to do.
Tati was the Oscar winning writer-director-actor behind such enduring and endearing classics as Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday, Playtime and Mon Oncle (My Uncle), the latter of which makes a cameo appearance in The Illusionist. Similarly, Tati wrote the original screenplay for The Illusionist but ultimately deemed it too personal a story to film himself. Acclaimed animator Sylvain Chomet (The Triplets of Belleville) discovered Tati’s script in 2003 and has ushered it successfully to the screen.
As The Illusionist begins, an aging vaudevillian performer named Tatischeff (Tati’s full birth name) is watching his receipts dwindle in 1950’s France as rock & roll music becomes the rage. Armed with an array of time-honored magic tricks and a testy, carnivorous rabbit, Tatischeff — at the invitation of a drunken fan — sets off for Scotland in the hope of finding more enthusiastic audiences.
He doesn’t, but Tatischeff does make the acquaintance of Alice, a sheltered teenage girl who is anxious to escape her small town life. The illusionist allows Alice to accompany him to Edinburgh, where he finds himself taking an increasingly paternal interest in her. They settle in a hotel for artists inhabited by a number of amusingly drawn wannabe stars and has-beens.
Chomet and Animation Director Paul Dutton employ wonderful character visualizations throughout The Illusionist, none more so than Tatischeff. As drawn by Laurent Kircher, Tatischeff is an animated reincarnation of Jacques Tati, with Tati’s mannerisms, subdued facial reactions and bouncy walking style all intact. For longtime Tati fans such as myself, the character is delightful to watch.
The Illusionist is largely dialogue-free, despite being billed as “in French with English subtitles.” This may take some getting used to by younger filmgoers, many of whom seem to want everything spelled out explicitly. However, they may otherwise enjoy the movie’s animation style which owes much to the 1960’s Disney classics 101 Dalmatians and The Aristocats (both of which Chomet names in the press notes as influences).
Although the plot is slight and the film’s ending may polarize viewers (some will find it poignant while others may think it cynical), The Illusionist makes for enjoyable holiday viewing as well as a loving tribute to a cinematic master.
Reverend’s Rating: B
UPDATE: The Illusionist is now available on DVD and Blu-ray from Amazon.com.
Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and the Orange County and Long Beach Blade.