Nestled in-between box-office blockbusters How to Train Your Dragon and Toy Story 3 in the three-film slate of Best Animated Feature Film Oscar nominees this year is something very different: The Illusionist, the second feature from French filmmaker Sylvain Chomet, whose 2003 debut, The Triplets of Belleville, was also an Oscar nominee.
Belleville fans — and there are many — will be pleased to know that Chomet matches much of the charm of that film here, with this tale of an aging, itinerant magician watching the music-hall days fade on the cusp of the 1960s.
Similarities between the two films are many. Like Belleville, The Illusionist is a largely hand-drawn, richly detailed, urban-European period piece, a comedy of sorts, virtually dialogue-free yet still full of sound.
It's not as antic, however. The jazz-age swing and pop and Rube Goldberg-esque activity of the earlier film are replaced by a slower pace and more serene, wistful tone.
Chomet adapted the film from an unproduced screenplay by late French filmmaker/performer Jaques Tati, who was something of a post-WWII Buster Keaton, his style of deadpan, cerebral slapstick casting a skeptical eye on modernity in films such as Mon Oncle, Mr. Hulot's Holiday, and the audacious, brilliant Playtime.
Tati had intended the film to be his follow-up to 1958's Mon Oncle, and Chomet pays tribute by modeling the title character after Tati, including given him Tati's birth name, Tatischeff. Tati is further brought into the film in a nice moment where Tatischeff wanders into a movie theatre showing Mon Oncle, the real film — not an animated simulacrum — on the screen.
The Illusionist also begins in a movie theater, in Paris, where Tatischeff is opening for a film, technical difficulties sending him back onstage to muddle through his act to mild applause while you can hear workers clanking and tinkering in the back.
Similarly embarrassing is a gig at a London variety show, where Tatischeff follows a bunch of proto-Beatles mop tops (Billy & the Britoons), taking the stage to see the screaming teenagers departed and only a lone old woman and her grandson remaining
Retreating to rural Scotland, Tatischeff has a successful performance at a modest tavern, but this residency is short-lived when the bar acquires its first jukebox. While there, however, Tatischeff is kind to a young barmaid in ways that she doesn't quite understand, and when he departs for Edinburgh, she stows away.
There, the film settles in, the odd couple taking up residence at a hotel filled with other endangered entertainers — clowns, acrobats, and ventriloquists. And these two new visitors experience the city — its winding streets, rolling hills, shops and café. The young woman, Alice, longs for the nice clothes she sees in shop windows, and Tatischeff acquires them for her. She thinks his magic is real, but that wonder — a product of youth and naiveté — can't last.
The plotting here is relatively bare, as is the film's 80 minute running time. But the characters, mood, imagery, and feel for off-hand incident — a clown, having run out of water while washing off his makeup, finishes the job by squeezing some out of the trick flower on his lapel — are pretty special.
Opens Friday, February 11th