Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Film Review: The Illusionist

"The Illusionist" **** (out of ****)

I've always felt I had something in common with Jacques Tati's alter-ego, Monsieur Hulot. Both of us are men who simply don't belong in the world we occupy. We find it hard to fit in. The world keeps moving forward while we are stuck in the past. We can't keep up. Worst of all, we don't want to keep up. We are content and look at the world in confusion. What are the rest of you doing? Why all these contraptions?

There is an element of that in the new animated film by Sylvain Chomet, best known for "The Triplets of Belleville" (2003), based on a screenplay by Mr. Tati himself.

"The Illusionist" is as much a Tati film as it is a Chomet film. Jacques Tati's undeniable comic style and themes are present throughout the film. In fact, the lead character, an aging illusionist, is not only named Tatischeff, but is drawn to look like Tati's Mr. Hulot character.

Jacques Tati was a brilliant mime, who even in the modern world of 1950, was making homages to silent slapstick comedy. His character, Hulot, never spoke. The people around him did, but he was always silent. Always trying to adjust to the world around him. Trying to keep up with technology. A world which has lost its traditional values. Watch "Play Time" (1967), "Mon Oncle" (1958) and "Mr. Hulot's Holiday" (1953) as examples. If you are in the mood for good slapstick comedy, check out Tati's debut feature length film, "Jour de Fete" (1949) as well.

In "The Illusionist" we are taken back to a time which resembles the 1960s, though it is not directly referenced. Tatischeff (voice of Jean-Claude Donda, though there is very little dialogue) is a good magician. He knows his trade. However he is a small time act. He performs mostly for empty theatres and venues. His chance at fame has passed. But, what else can he do? This is what he knows and it is what he does well. In order to make a living he must stick with it.

One humorous moment deals with Tatischeff being booked at a theatre where a very popular rock band will be performing before him (whom strangely reminded me of the Beatles). The audience, primarily young girls, pack the theatre, and scream and swoon over the band. The band is so popular they do several encores. Meanwhile Tatischeff is never sure when he is suppose to go on. This actually reminded me of a joke in the Billy Crystal comedy "Mr. Saturday Night" (1992). If you remember in that movie there is a scene where Crystal's character is booked on the Ed Sullivan show on the same day the Beatles are. He must perform after them but the audience is still yelling for them while Crystal is on stage.

The scene also helps re-enforce the theme that Tatischeff is a by-gone taste. Young people don't want to see his tricks. His innocent brand of entertainment is boring to modern audiences, who are looking for something more cutting edge.

Tatischeff finds himself in Scotland, performing at a local pub. This audience actually turns out to be his most receptive. Mostly because they are older and lets face it, all the alcohol helps. But it is at this pub Tatischeff meets a young girl, whom we suspect has no family. She is amazed by Tatischeff's tricks. She thinks they are real. It is not an illusion. Tatischeff has a special gift. So, when he heads to Edinburgh, without being asked, the young girl follows him.

Tatischeff now takes on a parental role. Looking after the girl, while also trying to keep her innocence alive and not reveal the fact that he is an illusionist. The young girl doesn't know the way the real world works. She thinks everything in life is free. All Tatischeff has to do is wave his hand and things suddenly appear. So Tatischeff has to work doubly hard to support the girl, who has rather expensive taste.

I have been reading on-line and have come across some people who say the relationship between these characters is one-sided and the girl is not as nice as she seems. Yes, the young girl accepts Tatischeff's gifts and never once says thank you but she repays him in other ways. Companionship for one. You can't put a price on that. She also cooks and cleans for him. And shows a kind heart to others as well.

"The Illusionist", in many ways, resembles the work of Charlie Chaplin. Because we are dealing with a man and a child, you simply have to think of "The Kid" (1921). You also have to think of "City Lights" (1931). In that movie Chaplin tries to help a poor blind girl. Here of course Tatischeff provides for a young orphan. And finally Chaplin's "Limelight" (1952) about a music hall performer who now must face he is a has-been and helps restore a young dancer. It is "Limelight" that "The Illusionist" resembles most. Both deal with characters whom have lost that special ability to connect with and engage an audience.

But perhaps the most special aspect of "The Illusionist" is it gives us one more chance to see the Hulot character. The way Chomet has drawn this character and his ability to truly flesh him out is remarkable. All of Hulot's mannerisms are on display. I could have seen how Tati would have made this into a live action film, which was his intention.

The other great thing about "The Illusionist" is it is hand-drawn. Nowadays all we get are CGI animated films, not that I'm complaining, but, there is something magical about hand-drawn animation. Especially since it has become a rarity. But don't fool yourself. Yes, "The Illusionist" is an animated film, but, I wouldn't describe it as a children's film. When I attended the theatre a few people decided to bring their children. Big mistake. As I left the theatre I heard the disappointment of all the children. "The Illusionist" deals with adult themes and has an adult sensibility. This is nothing like "Tangled" (2010) or "Toy Story 3" (2010), which are fine pieces of entertainment, but, more geared towards a younger audience.

The film has went on to earn much acclaim. It was nominated for a Golden Globe (best animated feature) and won a National Board of Review award. The critics have also thrown much praise at it. The film opened in a few cities late last year, just so it would be eligible for awards but has only now went into wide release. I consider it a 2011 picture and even though we are only roughly 2 weeks into the new year, I'm pretty confident in saying this is one of the year's best films and a film I am almost certain will make my top ten list at the end of the year.

However much I may praise the animation, or the humor or themes in the film, it has also caused some mild controversy. It appears one of the grandchildren does not approve of this film because he believes Sylvain Chomet has mis-represented Tati's work and his true intentions. It is the family's belief that Tati was going to make "The Illusionist" as a semi-autobiographical film. The movie addresses Tati's decision to abandon his eldest daughter, for whom Tati would have dedicated this film to. "The Illusionist" was suppose to be a very personal movie. A movie which would help clear Tati's conscience for his deplorable behavior. Read Roger Ebert's review for more details.

Be that as it may, I don't feel "The Illusionist" should be avoided. This is a truly remarkable film which honestly touched me. It made me happy to see the Hulot character again. Just think of all the fun Tati could have had now, in a world with cell phones smaller than the size of your hand, the internet, i-pods, mp3 players, text messaging. I'm smiling just thinking about it.