Marverlously Animated Illusionist Brings a Little Long-Gestating Magic to Toronto
Seven years in the actual assembly and about 50 more in the making, The Illusionist is a labor of love that achieves an increasingly rare phenomenon in feature animation: timelessness. Eager to brand their efforts with some new shiny technology or unparalleled verisimilitude, animators often turn to of-the-moment developments, and their films mark that moment as a result. And yet a growing number have either stuck with or retreated to a kind of slow animation, trusting story and style to carry the day.
It's telling that French director Sylvain Chomet (The Triplets of Belleville) had trouble finding enough 2D animators to put The Illusionist together. Working from a script that Jacques Tati wrote in tribute to his daughter but never produced, Chomet adapted the story of an itinerant French magician who meets a young Scottish peasant and informally adopts her as his own. In this case "adapt" means "took out all the words." Indeed, characters murmur and yelp and occasionally spit out the odd word or a sort of pidgen dialect, but the story, rendered in a gorgeously -- if often grotesquely -- expressive style, plays out as a silent pantomime.
Everybody speaks magic, of course, which means the shy but redoubtable magician makes friends wherever he goes. And yet it's 1959, which means magic shows and the vaudevillian troupes they traveled with are on the way out; the illusionist's time is running out. Furloughed in Edinburgh with the young waif he charmed by replacing her flapping boots with a pair of shiny red souliers, he plays to impatient audiences more interested in checking out the latest in Brit-pop. The young woman, convinced that the gifts she is receiving are a product of the illusionist's magic, becomes more and more acquisitive; he beggars himself to keep up with her demands.
Chomet's rendering of Edinburgh, a city he loves so much he moved there, is one of the film's chief delights. A citadel lit up like a cathedral, the setting joins and then influences the story: the magician must suborn his gifts for a humiliating department store gig; the village girl wants to look like the swish city women, and eventually finds a big city man. The story feels fairy-tale allegorical -- there is a Blue Angelish tension between would-be father and daughter that never quite gets resolved -- and its tone a transient, melancholy mix.
Its spareness, and particularly the absence of dialogue, concentrates attention on the visuals, and invites you to do what viewers used to do -- especially with animation -- as a matter of course: participate; help bring the world to life. Both flat and shimmering, the look and the lines of Chomet's animation are strangely relaxing. Instead of hunting the frame for innovation or fending off a dazzling assault, the renderings of something like firelight painting a wall, the morning sun forming several streams through a window, or sheets of rain angled on a city street are both soothing and marvelous. They feel, actually, a little like magic.