NOT in any way related to that unbelievably foolish 2006 film with Edward Norton, Sylvain Chomet's animated effort is loosely based on an unfilmed script by director-actor Jacques Tati who constructed it with autobiographical elements. In Chomet's hands The Illusionist becomes a whimsical nostalgic look at innocence and magic losing their place in an increasingly non-magical world. Chomet's previous feature Belleville Rendezvous aka Triplets of Belleville was a brilliant understated work. Using negligible amounts of dialog (in most instances for sound value, not the actual words) and not relying on convoluted plot mechanics or action set-pieces, Belleville sucked you in with its quiet, wry humor and a wonderfully nuanced style of illustration that appeared to come to life off the pages of a Herge comic book. Chomet finds similar threads in Tati's script and with what may be regarded as his characteristic style weaves them again into a tale that by virtue of its acute observation and underplayed emotion brings you under its spell.
The film is set in the 60's, the eponymous illusionist Tatischeff an aging stage conjuror trying to make ends meet, braving seedy performance halls and young audiences impatient for newer entertainment, like rock n' roll. Tatischeff must make sojourns to increasingly remote venues to peddle his art and from one of these, a young girl stows away with him, convinced that his tricks are genuine magic. It wouldn't take a greatly cynical audience to question why Tatischeff perpetuates the girl's notion to his own cost; they don't speak the same language but surely that in itself is not reason enough. Perhaps the old man is flattered in the presence of such naivete amidst the general indifference to his craft. Perhaps he embodies the spirit of the film itself, a lone hurrah to innocence and chivalrous old-worldliness in a world with little regard for these values. This of course leads to complications – chic dresses and shoes cannot be conjured without the magic of money, and old man Tatischeff must take up any odd job he can get to keep aloft the veil of illusion before his young ward.
In lesser hands, one can easily imagine such an arc going into cloying treacly territory. Having not yet seen any of Tati's films I can't compare, but some of Chaplin's films have slipped in this aspect despite their overall greatness. Thankfully Chomet makes no such mistakes and while we may sympathize with Tatischeff there are no forced handkerchief moments. We are also given a lot to smile about as we follow the foibles of the increasingly helpless sleight-of-hand man.
There is also a wonderful supporting cast. The bulk of the film is set in a rundown hotel in Scotland where several other similarly rundown entertainers lodge, and these characters, especially a depressed clown, a ventriloquist and a never-say-die trio of acrobats make wonderful additions to the story. The clown's portions form a mini-arc in themselves, the height of his tragi-comedy occurring when he postpones a suicide attempt to devour some soup prepared by the girl; his story strongly reminded me of that depressing and evocative chapter of the dying clown in The Pickwick Papers.
Even if you don't so much care for the plot, the film is worth watching simply for how absolutely wonderful it looks. Generated with hand-drawn and some carefully applied computer graphics, the richness of detail in the backgrounds is gob-smacking beyond the highest expectations; still frames could easily serve as paintings. Best of all none of this visual tapestry is empty window dressing: the film's look plays an indisputable role in evoking the era and the mood of the story it is trying to tell, and would stand proudly alongside that of the best-known animation films of the world. In other words you should really check this out.
Here's a very interesting blog post about Chomet and the making of The Illusionist: LINK