This summer’s blockbusters may have been disappointing but 2010 has definitely been a golden year for cinema animation. We’ve already had the wonderful How To Train Your Dragon, effortless fun with Miyazaki’s Ponyo and a strong candidate for film of the year in Toy Story 3.
The Illusionist is another animated feature that must rank near the top of the list of this year’s best films. Based on master storyteller Jacques Tati’s semi-autobiographical script and animated by Sidney Chomet, whose work on 2003’s Bellville Rendezvous earned him an Oscar Nomination for Best Animated Film, The Illusionist tells the story of Monsieur Tattischieff, an aging magician in 1959 Paris.
Tattischief finds himself in a world that is slowly fading – the sun is setting on his career and audiences are far more interested in the floppy-haired musicians that mark the inexorable rise of Rock ‘n’ Roll. Unable to sustain a crowd in Paris, he moves to London and then the Scottish Isles where his sleight of hand mesmerises a little girl called Alice. Eventually deciding to move on to the brighter city of Edinburgh, Alice decides to tag along, but Tatischieff’s life is on enough of shoestring without having to watch out for her as well.
The Illusionist contains almost no dialogue, but the story’s all in the wonderful animation of the characters. Set against some of the most beautiful backdrops you’ll ever see in an animated feature (every scene looks like it could be a painting), it’s a loving and tender homage to the city of Edinburgh (a more fitting film to open the Edinburgh Film Festival you could not ask for).
Being almost devoid of dialogue, the animation is full of subtle visual cues. Tattischieff never seems to fit into his surroundings: the world hangs heavily on his shoulders and he only really comes alive on stage, mirroring his growing feeling of obsolescence in the face of dwindling and indifferent audiences. Chomet manages to convey in a shrug and a pause what many film makers never do in an entire screenplay.
It’s also full of playful visual gags – his white rabbit that won’t stay in its hat, a pawnbroker’s called Blair and Brown and the circus troopers that Alice and Tattischief share their house are constantly charming.
While it’s at first glance a simple story about the friendship between unlikely companions, it’s also a satire on the power of marketing over actual talent. The young audiences that Tatischieff is playing to are much more interested in the local pop group Billy Boy and Britoons – irredeemably awful preening egoists to a man, whose lack of talent is completely oblivious to their legion of screaming fans . Yet we know that their popularity will skyrocket as Tattischief’s wanes.
It’s a tender film tinged with wistful melancholy; a faded photograph of a more innocent time, achingly beautiful and full of unspoken but undeniable charm. Highly recommended.