Steven Spielberg...Tom Hanks...Shawn Levy...Jon Turteltaub...
We live in a town which many of the biggest movers-and-shakers in the movie industry call home. Ironically, there is not one movie theater in town. (Not even a movie rental store.)
So the PaliPatch would be remiss if it did not occasionally point out a worthy piece of cinema playing in our midst, and, in the case of The Illusionist, there is only one movie theatre on the entire Westside––Laemmle's Royal Theatre––screening this lovely import.
Thanks to the success of family friendly animated features by Pixar and DreamWorks, Americans have become accustomed over the last decade or two to taking in cartoons that shout at you, scream at you, and ultimately culminate in that by-now-rote third-act climax in which all of the characters are engaged in a manic, urgent, over-the-top-busy chase.
Not so with the Jacques Tati-hatched Illusionist.
If ever there was a lost Mr. Hulot film, this is it. The surprise is that it arrives as an animated feature, and the experiment is a great success. French filmmaker Jacques Tati was the rough equivalent of a Gallic Charlie Chaplin, a director with a trademark character (Mr. Hulot to Chaplin's Tramp) who relied on physical comedy and who found the comedy in pathos, employing an exquisite command of the drama intrinsic within comedy. Seminal Tati works, such as Mr. Hulot’s Holiday (1953) and Play Time (1967) directly influenced filmmakers such as Steven Spielberg (specifically Jaws) and Blake Edwards (The Party). Another master French filmmaker, François Truffaut, paid tribute to Tati by including his signature character in a cameo in Bed and Board (1970), in which Mr. Hulot misses a train, a passing-of-the-torch moment between Tati and Truffaut that Wes Anderson emulated with an identical scene featuring Bill Murray in The Darjeeling Limited.
Now, the creators of 2004's critically acclaimed animated feature The Triplets of Belleville, headed by the film’s director, Sylvain Chomet, took an unproduced Tati script and, in an interesting move, adapted it as an animated movie rather than attempt to mount a live-action version. The resulting film makes for an interesting hybrid: at once, a tribute to and a posthumous collaboration with a cinematic master.
Set in 1959, the storyline is as thin and rambling as the lead character, a Mr. Hulot-esque magician named Tatischeff (Tati’s real surname) who wanders from one lackluster theater venue to another, journeying from Paris to London to Edinburgh, where Alice, a deprived orphan girl, latches onto him and follows him throughout Scotland. At one point, Tatischeff settles in and performs at the Royal Music Hall while trying to maintain a day job. Meanwhile, the scruffy little moppet, an ingenue on the cusp of becoming a woman, evolves into sort of a poor man’s Audrey Hepburn; a gamine gal with an Alice in Wonderland dress, Cinderella dreams and Paris Hilton tastes.
The Illusionist expertly emulates the Tati formula. Chomet understands the essence of Tati’s technique of using audio as atmosphere. Noises act as intrusive punctuations while dialogue remains minimal and meant to provide color; as shorthand and as satire to sum up one eccentric character or another (in this film, a white Cadillac-driving American, a drunken Scotsman, a trio of trapeze artists). Tati’s soundtrack of language and deliberate urban noise reached an apex in Play Time, where international languages collided in an amalgam of absurd mumbling. Chomet captures that aesthetic here. He also provides some quintessential Hulot moments of man versus modern technology in which Tatischeff struggles with a mechanical challenge or two.
The movie’s humor balances on tasteful slapstick and pantomime. Chomet also nails Tati’s physical mannerisms and rhythms, his awkward-foal gait.
Late in the movie, there’s a stellar moment where Tatischeff peeks into the "Cameo" movie theater for a brief and awkward, face-to-face encounter with Jacques Tati himself (live-action, on the silver screen in a clip from Mon Oncle). It’s a terrific wink-wink to Illusionist's screenwriter and a solid acknowledgement that the character Tatischeff is meant to pay direct, mirror-image homage to Tati’s Mr. Hulot.
The character designs make for a quirky cast of caricatures, starting at the top with the lanky main character, very closely adhering to Tati’s Mr. Hulot persona (including the caricatures from various French movie posters). The European backdrops appear elegant and beautifully rendered, like lush watercolors. Meanwhile, Tatischeff’s suits change from lively default browns to as strikingly purple as Willy Wonka’s coat or as perfectly pink as the title character of a Blake Edwards comedy. Visually, The Illusionist resembles a bande dessinée come to life.
Yes, The Illusionist will be nominated for an Academy Award. Yes, it will lose the Best Animated Feature category to the bigger, more universally seen and consumed Toy Story 3. But do not miss your chance to see a classy––and perhaps a classic––animated film that will surely never have a number 2 or 3 slapped after its title. Like The Iron Giant a dozen years ago, this is surely a one-time affair and something the adults might ultimately appreciate way more than the kiddies.
It's funny that this late-2010 release came out in the same year as a spiritually-dead-on-arrival film such as The Sorcerer's Apprentice, a big studio number that vomited $150 million onto the screen in special effects and still could not produce one moment as original and imaginative, or as subtle and magical, as this decidedly lower-budgeted affair. A graceful universe of wit and poignancy, The Illusionist is an intelligent delight.