Tuesday, 5 April 2011

REVIEW: The Illusionist

Sylvain Chomet's Oscar nominated animation is apparently taken from a script written by Jacques Tati in 1956 as a letter to his daughter. If anyone else fondly remembers 2003 Belleville Rendez-Vous then they would have waited a long time for this to finally be released - and it's well worth the wait.

The Illusionist is about a French magician who does some work in London and then gets invited to Scotland. Once there, a young girl is soon mesmerised by his tricks and he soon takes her under his wing. However, her demands get more and more expensive and soon our Illusionist has to start keeping afloat by doing more than tricks.

Firstly, before we delve further into the plot, it has to be said that this film is visually stunning. It feels like this animation style is what Disney should have been doing, it's a beautiful, nostalgic work of art and every scene flows with such grace that Pixar, Disney, Dreamworks or whoever should be ashamed of what they've done because this is true animation, and it shows. You can tell that every scene, every frame in fact, has been lovingly tended to and in 90 minutes that's a hell of a lot of frames. Every single one is like a picture and because of its setting in 1956, its quaint, whimsical nature really touched me, the colours, settings and slightly anti-modern feel of the piece is a magical, old-school visual pleasure that is tough to pinpoint. This is from the very first frame, so you can imagine what I was like by the end. The film took a huge time longer than was budgeted but it has been well worth the wait and I couldn't help but feel it might be the finest animation I've ever seen.

What you will also notice is there is almost no dialogue. Instead, there's sounds and the odd word here and there but you could watch it with the sound off and, even though you'd miss out on the rich score, you would know exactly what was going on. The only problem I had was the story ...

The magician is from the old music hall type of entertainment. He's a proud man whose magic is quite astounding but clearly doesn't let people's disinterest dishearten him, instead he professionally turns up and does his bit, even if it's quite depressing. Going on after a rock'n'roll band for instance, shows the clear contrast between two generations and how he is holding on to a dying trade - he is in fact disillusioned. The whole time his eyes are somewhat closed and he goes through the motions without paying attention to the fact that people don't care. There's also the matter of his frame, he is fairly old, very tall, and very awkward looking gentleman. He is also clearly lonely with nothing but his angry rabbit to keep him company and it looks like everything he owns can fit in a tiny case. It's sad yet somewhat admirable that he stays true to his magic which he knows should be deemed impressive and to us as the audience, it is. The rest of this will have some spoilers but there's no twists or anything but you might want to skip ahead.

His gorgeous travels to Scotland land him a short gig in a pub where the suburban people are amazed by his talents and soon a young girl starts believing his magic is real. This man can make shoes appear, he can even make it snow! Unfortunately, the man doesn't want to reveal it's all a trick and would rather keep up the charade than admit it's all a joke, he wants to keep her as disillusioned as himself. When she rides with him to Edinburgh, we start to see the greed of materialism and city life worm its way into her head. She begins to want more and more and they move into a small hotel with other circus-like acts - a depressed clown, a disturbing ventriloquist and three happy Yankee acrobats. Our girl is soon asking for handouts and the magician starts working nights and soon sells himself out by working for a promotions company and wearing all pink.

However, the girl soon starts seeing a young gentleman and the magician notices. Sadly, he leaves her with some money and a note declaring magic isn't real. As he sits on a train, a young girl looking very much like the girl from before has lost her short pencil looking very similar to the magicians longer one. As he makes it 'appear' he hands her back the smaller one. It's a significant gesture about life, he has had to deal with the real world, is sick of giving and not receiving and as he looks at a photo of his daughter, it's clear that he has come to terms with whatever guilt he has felt towards an obviously painful past. He has helped the girl move on to womanhood and cared for her as best he could. In those simple few last seconds, it's subtle imagery brings a depth to the film that you weren't even aware of, especially since it was a rather deep, moving film to begin with.

The initial set-up for the relationship looked like it could be a romantic, perhaps even sexual one, but it's clear that neither of them are interested. Like perhaps 'Leon', it is merely two people finding themselves in a certain reality. It's only when he sees a moving picture of someone similar backing away, 'leaving' a girl's voice saying 'papa' that he realises he has been a father to the girl, that it is now time to leave her. It's something so small yet so telling.

The girl herself is awkwardly pretty, her age unclear and her innocent yet selfish motives are rather child-like, just like a baby wants a toy it doesn't think about cost, merely the want. In fact it's telling of the economy, the constant borrowing without paying back, consumerism, materialism, the jobs of the little people drying up, the gap between rich and poor, old and young. It's messages are simple and yet multi-layered, all just through the most subtle of movements and gestures made from hand-drawn animations.

It might border on patronising for something that people might consider slow and boring, but this really should have won the Oscar over Toy Story 3. It is a real work of art and I cannot emphasise what a warm, yet emotional feeling it left me with. Every character, no matter how small, is a complex individual and you really feel they have their own world separate to this. It's incredible in fact that in this huge, bustling, beautiful, hand-drawn world they've created, the story decides to focus on two small characters in a strange Fifties 'Lost In Translation'.

My only criticism is that the girl really did annoy me and it was hard to sympathise with her. She came across as just too simple at times and the poor magician was trying so hard for her that as you saw her eloping with another gentleman it made you feel slightly angry. It was a weird mix of emotions that I didn't feel sat right, which isn't to say it's a bad thing just I was confused as to what they wanted to convey. It became clear that the story was just as much a coming-of-age film for the young girl than anything else, his message of magic not being real is a very bold way of telling her it's time to grow up. He has helped how he could and it's now time to move on.

The magical world they both live in, and the final photo reveal, shows that hiding in magic is often easier than the truth and, as beautiful as it might seem, it's in fact a lie. The illusion is that it's a film and of course not real but the bigger illusion beneath this is the fact that it's all just hand-drawn frames moving together. The film itself is magic and perhaps Chomet is The Illusionist but the magical world he has set for us is one I'd love to be inside time and again in the future.

Rating: 9/10

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