An aging magician struggles to impress his increasingly disbelieving audiences in The Illusionist, a rumination on life, relationships and growing old from French director Sylvain Chomet. Based on an unused script from French filmmaking legend Jacques Tati and animated completely by hand, The Illusionist has a dark undercurrent below its comedic surface but never loses its sprit of discovery.
Chomet, who directed the similarly styled The Triplets of Belleville, fashions The Illusionist simply. The film has very little dialogue, just a few words and some onomatopoeic sounds, and the story is easily summarized: Un illusionniste - known only by his stage name, Tatischeff - finds himself in the twilight of his career. His audiences dwindle, and he takes second stage to rockers who get girls to scream. Tatischeff befriends Alice, a young girl amazed by his craft, and tries to provide her with nice things. Because he can't get steady pay as a magician, Tatischeff works odd jobs to keep up the illusion of his success.
There's something very Chaplin-esque or Vaudevillian about The Illusionist, which provides several longing glimpses at the rundown theaters that magicians, dancers and comedians called home. Along with directing and acting, Tati also was a mime in Paris, and his appreciation of the performing arts seeps into Chomet's film. At one point, Alice talks to a ventriloquist's dummy, which she later sees comically passed out at a pub table. The magician's ornery rabbit also gets his five minutes of fame, and only Alice finds affection in the fickle creature.
The hand-drawn style of animation used for The Illusionist may be outdated, but much time and love obviously went into each frame of the film. The Illusionist animated Pixar style would have been silly and undermining to the story. The lack of dialogue allows viewers to more easily pick up on bits of physical comedy, of which there are quite a few, but I found the film's final act to be fairly melancholic. Tatischeff meets the realization head on that his life's work is no longer relevant. Alice also must admit that the magician's trade is of a bygone era.
There is much relatable material in The Illusionist, and Tatischeff can be substituted for any person at the end of long career. The only strong criticism I have for The Illusionist concerns the sentimentality that comes on strong in the second act. Tatischeff and Alice's relationship is ripe for exploration, but Chomet occasionally allows the film to stray from its sharp comedy and dark underpinnings into bathetic melodrama. It is in these scenes when The Illusionist begins to feel much longer than its scant 80 minutes.
Downfall from success can be tragic and abrupt, but The Illusionist explores the not altogether terrible conclusion of Tatischeff's lengthy career. Growing old and becoming irrelevant are fears we all face, but the joy of discovery can be passed down to new generations. Chomet's The Illusionist celebrates both the lost art of Vaudeville and hand-drawn animation, and it's easy to find significance between the lines of its story.
Sony's 1.85:1/1080p/AVC transfer for The Illusionist is nearly perfect. The animation is unpolished, but the transfer is sharp and detailed. The film's color scheme is somewhat neutral, but the bits of color that are present are perfectly saturated and vibrant. Blacks are deep and whites never appear blown out, and skin tones appear exactly as animated. A few hints of softness are likely attributable to the source material. At no point did I notice compression artifacts or shimmering, and digital manipulation is not an issue. This transfer truly allows the viewer to appreciate the traditional hand-drawn animation in play for The Illusionist.
The Blu-ray comes with only one audio option: a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround track. There's no real dialogue in the film, but the few exchanges that occur are clear and out of the center channel. The track excels at creating an immersive environment, using the surrounds and front speakers to envelop the viewer. From audience clapping to a rock performance to driving rain, the track is crisp, deep and convincing. There also is some decent bass in musical sequences, providing something for the subwoofer to do. English SDH subtitles are available.
Unfortunately, The Illusionist's Blu-ray offers few substantial extras. The Making of The Illusionist (3:30) is a brief, narration-free piece that shows some sketches and storyboards. Also included are Animation Line Tests (2:23), Before and After Animation Sequences (8:46), the film's theatrical trailer (1:32), BD-Live and a DVD copy of the feature film.
A longing nod to hand-drawn animation and Vaudevillian arts, The Illusionist finds aging Parisian magician Tatischeff struggling to impress a girl who is possibly his last fan. Based on an unproduced script from French directing legend Jacques Tati and directed by Sylvain Chomet, The Illusionist mixes the melancholy with sharp comedy. An earnest if occasionally melodramatic look at growing old, The Illusionist puts on a good show for Blu-ray. Recommended.
William lives in Raleigh, North Carolina, and looks forward to a Friday-afternoon matinee.