The latest release from Sylvain Chomet, director of 2003’s acclaimed “The Triplets of Belleville,” is the product of substantial strife and controversy. Adapted from a 1956 screenplay by the French comic, actor, and director Jacques Tati, “The Illusionist” follows an impoverished French magician who brings his show to Scotland after facing competition from more modern entertainments. There he takes in Alice, a young girl who believes his illusions are real. The script is often read as an allegory about Tati’s strained relations with his daughters, Helga Marie-Jeanne Schiel and Sophie Tatischeff. He was unable to spend time with Tatischeff because of his work in film, and never acknowledged Schiel publicly. Chomet dedicates the film to Tatischeff, a choice that offended Schiel’s family and stoked scandal in France.
Together, the legacy of Tati and the controversy surrounding “The Illusionist” offer insight into why the film feels incomplete. Out of reverence for Tati’s story, Chomet has taken great care to remain faithful to his source material. The product is a film that feels safe and derivative. The animation of “The Illusionist” is clean and polished, and its narrative tightly structured, yet it lacks the imagination and boldness of his previous work.
The most obvious reason that the film disappoints is a simple one: Chomet forgoes the sprawling chaos that made “Belleville” so visually compelling. In that film, Chomet was willing to let the seams of the animation show; audiences rallied around the hand-drawn film as an alternative to the cold perfection of computer-generated imagery. Chomet allows brief glimpses of this aesthetic in “The Illusionist.” In one particularly striking scene in a train station, the color and detail of the building fades as the eye travels up into the eaves, until the station resembles an architectural sketch more than a real place.
Yet in most of “The Illusionist,” Chomet has scrubbed away the quirky surrealism that made “Belleville” memorable. The settings look like they were cribbed from a classic Disney film, and the Scottish countryside is rendered in solid colors and clean lines—a dramatic break from the dazzling, chaotic metropolis of “Belleville.” And whereas the citizens of Belleville were grotesque caricatures that limped, tripped, and bicycled through the frame, the characters of “The Illusionist” move as smoothly as real people. Besides a few alarmingly thin necks, they look like them, too.
This is an area in which Chomet’s loyalty to Tati’s memory—Tatischeff looks exactly like his real-life model—prevents him from exercising his full creative powers, and the film suffers for it. Similarly, the director shies away from giving Alice any flaws or interesting characteristics beyond her extraordinary naïveté, possibly out of respect for Sophie Tatischeff, on whom the character is based.
And when Chomet does revisit the techniques that succeeded in “Belleville,” they feel misplaced. In his previous film, he relied almost entirely on pantomime to convey the narrative. This worked well, because “Belleville” is structured around action, rather than character development, and dialogue is beside the point. “The Illusionist,” however, portrays the trajectory of the relationship between Tatischeff and Alice. Because the characters communicate in a pidgin of pantomime and un-subtitled Gaelic, instead of words the audience can understand, their story lacks necessary nuance. Despite its considerable cleverness and whimsy, then, “The Illusionist” is ultimately bland and forgettable.
“The Illusionist,” however, is not without charm. Although its animation lacks the over-the-top creativity of “Belleville,” it is skillfully drawn; indeed, animation by hand has become so rare that any new work in the genre is a treat. Chomet’s wacky, politically incorrect humor, too, feels fresh and original. The effeminate mannerisms of the rock band that upstages Tatischeff may make gay rights activists uncomfortable; their antics evoke unpleasant stereotypes. But it is nonetheless refreshing to see this type of humor used so openly in a cartoon. It adds a pungency to counteract the narrative’s sweetness, and unlike the tacked-on innuendo of the “Shrek” or “Toy Story” films, the humor of “The Illusionist” is not disingenuous; this is a film for intelligent adults, and Chomet is not afraid to make that clear.
The plot of “The Illusionist” obviously resonates with Chomet, whose old-fashioned storytelling methods and aesthetic sensibilities are rapidly becoming as antiquated as Tatischeff’s prestidigitation. Despite this resonance, though, Chomet fails to make “The Illusionist” his own. The film is neither a Chomet cartoon nor a Tati comedy; it hangs in limbo, lacking the bold vision of either auteur. Despite its status as a malformed artistic miscarriage, though, it retains some interest as an afternoon’s diversion and as a curiosity in film history. Given the arduous circumstances of the film’s creation, it is hard to see how Chomet might have made “The Illusionist” into anything more. But an informed understanding of the reasons for the film’s limitations is not enough to overcome the lingering sense of disappointment it leaves.
—Staff Writer Abigail B. Lind can be reached at email@example.com.