Today, most animated movies are fast-paced thrill rides that bust box office records. They’re the grandchildren of “Toy Story” and “Shrek,” combining the voices of big name stars with equally big laughs and profits. However, “The Illusionist,” a charming hand-drawn film, is a bittersweet throwback to the golden age of animation.
The movie centers on a character known only as The Illusionist, an aging magician who is gradually replaced by more entertaining onstage acts, like 1950’s can-can girls and British boy bands. Discouraged by his lack of success in Paris and London, he heads to a small Scottish town to perform in local pubs. There he meets and befriends Alice, a young woman who wants to get out of her dull hometown. Together, The Illusionist and Alice leave for Edinburgh to pursue their dreams: The Illusionist longs to become a famous magician again, and Alice wants to see the world.
The movie has an old world style and appeal, especially with its hand-painted and hand-drawn look. It’s completely 2-D and only uses computer assistance in its sweeping shots of Edinburgh. Drawn by French animator Sylvain Chomet, the characters in the movie resemble caricatures with huge noses and notable flaws. This makes them more relatable and human-like than their computer-generated counterparts from Pixar and Dreamworks. From its rain-soaked and dreamy paintings of Parliament in London to its sunny, cheery recreations of Edinburgh and Paris, the film is visually stunning.
The film gets its sensibility from the semi-autobiographical script written by French director Jacques Tati in 1956. Since Tati passed away before making the movie, his daughter Sophie gave the script to Chomet to animate her father’s story. While the film strays somewhat from the original plot — like changing The Illusionist’s destination from Prague to Edinburgh and making his animal companion a rabbit rather than a chicken — it turns an old story into an entertaining 80-minute cartoon for a modern-day audience.
The movie sets itself apart from the competition by using almost no dialogue. Other than a few minor grunts and giggles, the characters do not speak. It’s a gutsy move by the writers, but this technique helps “The Illusionist” gain wider appeal. The film was created in France, but by leaving out its native dialogue it removes the language barrier and makes the film more accessible to viewers. The silence also allows the characters to convey their emotions through facial expressions and body language, similar to the recent motion picture “WALL-E.”
One of three motion picture films nominated for Best Animated Feature at The Oscars this year — the other two being “How to Train Your Dragon” and “Toy Story 3” — “The Illusionist” proves that a film with a 60-year-old script, no dialogue and a “no computers, no problem” attitude is still entertaining. Perhaps the film’s biggest advantage is its nostalgic yearning for a time when magicians were still the most popular stage performers.
While the computer-animation of Pixar and Dreamworks have their own sense of whimsicality and importance, the homespun animation of “The Illusionist” is a gorgeous reminder of a bygone magic in cinema.
“The Illusionist” was written by Jacques Tati and drawn and directed by Sylvain Chomet.
3 out of 4 stars