There’s a scene late in Sylvain Chomet’s animated The Illusionist where the title character, a magician styled after the late Jacques Tati (upon whose unproduced screenplay the film is based), stumbles into a movie theater where he is surprised to see a live action version of himself on screen. The film is Tati’s own Mon Oncle. It’s a clever moment, one of many in The Illusionist, but it serves to illustrate what had been nagging me through the earlier part of the movie. Tati was a master of physical performance, but the character on offer in The Illusionist is a hollow simulacrum. It’s a loving and detailed copy, but it lacks the vitality of the real thing and so unfortunately does the film. The artistry and craftsmanship of The Illusionist are unassailable, but ultimately the film fails to come to full life.
The story is set in the late 1950s when traditional music hall performers like magicians, ventriloquists and clowns were giving way to the more rambunctious strains of rock and roll. Unable to keep work as a magician in Paris or London, The Great Tatischeff (the Russian descended Tati’s real last name) finds himself in a small village in northern Scotland. There he meets a young girl who believes his magic is real and that he can conjure anything he wants. When he leaves for a gig in Edinburgh, she sneaks a ride to follow him and they develop a sweet kind of father/daughter bond. Still, even outlying Edinburgh is changing and it’s becoming no place for Tatischeff’s illusions.
Mostly, The Illusionist is just nice. The final 10 to 15 minutes of the story are quietly heartbreaking, but they’re not enough to completely make up for the fact that the rest amounts to 45 minutes of story spread across 90 minutes of movie. With his endlessly entertaining bits of comic business, the original Tati could fill 90 minutes of movie with 9 minutes of story, but the animated copy quickly wears out his welcome. Visually, Tatischeff is a remarkable recreation. Chomet and his animators get the body language and wardrobe perfectly, right down to the high-water pants, but it doesn’t improve upon the real thing, let alone replace it.
Similar in style and color to Chomet’s previous The Triplets of Belleville, The Illusionist is always interesting to look at. Amid the current surfeit of 3D product, it really is refreshing to watch two-dimensional animation. Unfortunately looks aren’t everyting and there is ultimately not enough going on to hold interest without the real Tati on hand to fill in the numerous blanks. With the admittedly marvelous finale, I wish Chomet had made a short film instead.
The Illusionist (L’Illusionniste). Written and directed by Sylvain Chomet from a screenplay by Jacques Tati. Music score also composed by Sylvain Chomet. Voices provided by Eilidh Rankin, Jean-Claude Donda, Duncan MacNiel, James T. Muir, Tom Urie and Paul Bandey. 1 hour 30 minutes. Not rated by the MPAA. 3 stars (out of 5)