Though not as flashy as Toy Story 3 or How To Train Your Dragon, the third Best Animated Picture nominee, The Illusionist, charms and sparkles with melancholy. Largely dialogue-free and wonderfully drawn, the film explores the life of a disenchanted French magician who wanders to Scotland. In a tiny village in the highlands of the country, he stumbles upon an enthralling girl who changes his life forever.
Director Sylvain Chomet, he of The Triplets of Bellville fame, took the screenplay from the now-deceased Jacques Tati, finally bringing the screenwriter’s posthumous career to a close. Apparently, Tati thought it would best be filmed as a live-action picture, but animation suits the plot perfectly. No actor would be able to encapsulate the frazzled, yet sweetly endearing nature of the unnamed Illusionist. As the movie opens, we catch a glimpse of the aging man’s act, a sad but surely once spectacular show that now seems outdated and stale. Yes, the quickness of the old man’s hand still manages to mildly impress his miniscule audience, but it becomes abundantly clear that the magician is out of touch with the trends of the times.
Dejected and down on his luck, the illusionist continues his travels to the highlands of Scotland. The scenes depicting his journey are a delight to watch. When he arrives in the small Scottish village, he stays at an inn and performs at a local pub, pulling coins out of traveling children’s ears, amusing them as the train chugs slowly across the countryside. Upon returning to his room, he finds a young girl, Alice, sweeping his floor. Being his genial self, he plucks a coin from her ear and deposits it into her quivering hand. Dashing out of the room with squeals of joy, the girl rips her shoe on a nail protruding from the creaky floorboards, an interesting spark that acts as a catalyst in her friendship with the magician.
Thus begins the films exploration of the relationship between an elderly man and Alice. The movie’s stance on the pair stands at odds with how society would view such a thing in today’s world. The magician brings Alice with him back to Edinburgh, bestowing lavish gifts like brand new red shoes and a glamorous red coat on the much younger girl. In return, she cooks and cleans his room for him, accompanies him to his still sparsely attended shows. He takes Alice under his wing, treating her like the daughter he never had. He picks up odd jobs at all hours of the day and night so he can treat her like a princess, but never expects anything in return. However, as the girl grows older, the dynamic of their friendship changes for the worse. She grows more distant, seeking out the company of boys instead of her makeshift father. The film from that point begins a downward spiral into melancholy once again as the illusionist realizes that he can no longer keep up with the dynamic young generation.
One of the film’s most impressive feats is its subtle criticism of the ever changing popular culture. At different times, The Illusionist manages to touch upon the flapper girls of the 1920s and the 1960s boy bands (with a sound uncannily like that of The Monkees). The old man’s sighs as he wearily trudges onstage after the raucous young band’s speak to a rapidly growing consensus about the state of Top 40 music. In the movie, the illusionist himself takes on the role of a nation’s disregard for this “throwaway” culture.
In a fantastically depressing subplot, the lives of several minor vaudevillian performers are explored, exposing a truly depressing subculture. Several other carnies reside at the illusionist’s hotel, including a frumpy, frowning clown and a surely mentally unstable ventriloquist with multiple personalities. Drawn with the mannerisms of a stumbling drunk, the ventriloquist is sharply juxtaposed with his snappy dummy, a squawking fellow who resembles his owner only in appearance.
It is astounding what great strides such a simple, dialogue free film like The Illusionist can make, armed only with stunning animation and a deceptively simple plot. In a perfect world, more audiences would discover the marvelous movie, but sadly, Toy Story 3 and Pixar seem poised to dominated animation for the foreseeable future.