The Illusionist

Written by:
Elgy Gillespie
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The Illusionist

Original script by Jacques Tati
Directed and adapted by Sylvain Chomet
Produced by Sally Chomet and Bob Last
MPAA rating: PG


It’s impossible not to be charmed by the magical medium of Sylvain Chomet’s tale about an elderly French magician in Scotland, and what happens to him. Animation fans may wonder why this Golden Globe-nominated movie has taken so long to find a US release date.

Known for his “Triplets of Belleville,” Chomet has taken a long-lost script by Monsieur Hulot himself, Jacques Tati, and transformed it into a Valentine to the island of Iona and the city of Edinburgh, using the alchemy of animation.

The aesthetics of its artwork are captivating—exquisite and wistful. Yet the movie fails to cast a magic spell over viewers.

Voices are credited, but there is no script, dialog, or even much of a story. Images alone supply the narrative. The mutterings of the characters are deliberately unintelligible, but there’s no denying the Scottishness of the result—the soft tints and washes of its loughs and glens, highlands and islands, and delicate palette of Hibernian skies and heather and general dampness, above all the northern light.

The tale is slight and quickly told. The illusionist himself bears a more-than-passing resemblance to Tati, who started his career in music halls, and he is finding it tougher to get an audience now that boy rock bands rule. So he seeks work further afield, taking the ferry across the Channel to Britain, and then the train to Scotland, where the animation – which is Triplettes-like in Chomet’s early music hall scenes – becomes borderline Japanese and Mayazaki-evoking in delicacy.

Tellingly, the magician enjoys simple success in a simple village on Iona, nestling among the glimmering pastels and luster of the Scottish landscape. The umber-orange shades of heather hills and the grays of its granites and skies are almost ink-and-wash, and some of the loveliest I’ve seen.

Here, the magician meets a wide-eyed waif called Alice, who is slaving away as a chambermaid. He has found a daughter, she finds a father. Together they set off for Edinburgh, and the animation becomes even more lovingly limned. Never has Edinburgh’s gothic red stonework been more beautifully rendered; it’s similar in sensitivity to watercolor and pen.

This odd couple enters a boarding house of jugglers, clowns and alcoholics. The waif hankers after new clothes, and the magician toils at several graveyard shifts to “magic” them for her. Eventually she finds a boyfriend and loses a father.

The magician smokes, but not enough to explain why the rating is PG; their friendship is innocent, their age-gap an unbridgeable half-century, and the humor gently retro: Mon Oncle-ish, in fact. You will probably sigh, not laugh.

Tati began his career in music halls, and lamented their loss, and this film is about loss. In fact, that’s the trouble with this movie, because it’s not funny, it’s sad. Even its humor is sad. It ends with the illusionist’s magicking a pencil for a child on the train back to Paris.

When he hands her the short one she has been using instead of a new longer one, as though underlining the loss of magic, we understand the note he left behind: “Magicians don’t exist.”

The neon above his musical hall going dark delivers another poignant coda to the ending. But by that stage you may very well be asleep. Animation artists, however, will remain haunted by the beauty and mystery of its Caledonian creation.


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