The Illusionist (2010 movie) review…

The Illusionist (2010 movie) review after the break…

The Illusionist (2010 movie) review…

In 1950s Europe, a middle-aged, financially-struggling magician befriends a young teenage girl who seems to believe that the magician’s acts are genuine miracles and not slight-of-hand trickery. When the two wind up in the British city of Edinburgh, the reality of their situation compounds an already fragile existence for both of them which prompts some life-altering changes.

“The Illusionist” is a 2010 animated film (no, not the live-action one with Christian Bale) who’s history in being brought to screen is probably more entertaining than the actual movie itself. The movie’s script was written in the 1950s by Jacques Tati and, if you don’t know who Jacques Tati is, you probably don’t follow French cinema, the art of mime (yes, the one where people pretend that they are in glass boxes) or both. The script, while completed, was never enacted upon while Tati was alive but finally brought to the screen in animated form.

Despite being an animated film, “The Illusionist” is definitely not for children despite the PG rating and not because of why it is PG-rated (supposedly for smoking and thematic elements); “The Illusionist” is simply a slow, dramatic film about issues that small children simply can not relate to. Quite honestly, the film would have been rated G had it been released before the 1990s.

Watching the film is almost not enough to appreciate the film – Merely watching the film is almost like reading only the first sentence of every paragraph of a novel; You might glean enough of the novel to follow the main plot but none of the secondary details that flesh out the novel and appreciate the story as it was intended. For instance, film scholars tend to think of this script almost like a thinly-veiled biographical telling of Jacques Tati’s life – A life of a vaudeville performer who sacrifices family for performance and who’s time in the spotlight is always fleeting, especially in the dawning age of television. Jacques Tati was not a fan of consumerist culture and his final unproduced effort was to have been a scathing rebuke on the television industry, an industry that ravaged the theater vaudeville performer culture.

Yet a film must stand on it’s own presentation and not rely upon a rich off-screen history. As a film, “The Illusionist” is nicely drawn even if the cell-shaded CGI vehicles stick out slightly. I’ve never been a fan of mixing those sorts of mediums because it just never seems to work – The CGI upstages the traditionally-drawn animation despite the attempt at camouflage. In America, we’re accustomed to animation being targeted for children and the parents dragged to seeing the film with their children (or grandchildren). The novelty of a mature animated film is rather refreshing at first glance.

One of the movies’ most provocative decisions is the minimal amount of dialog, as though the entire film is being “mimed” (Tati was, after all, a mime). As a result, this film could be seen anywhere and understood almost universally. Facial expressions and body language often replace actual dialog. A few written words can easily be subtitled if need be for the viewing audience. No words need to be spoken for when the magician sadly releases his long-rambunctious but only recently mellowed rabbit out into the wild for a final farewell. It is the epitome of that age old phrase, “Be careful for what you wish for because it might come true.” How much dialog would have to be written to convey an older drunk man or a bar manager politely but firmly insuring that the magician’s services are no longer needed?

The lack of dialog cuts both ways, though – the lack of dialog limits the options that the film has at it’s disposal to tell it’s story. We know “of” the magician but never get to “know the magician.” We know “of” the young girl but never “know the girl.” It is all well and good to leave some of the story to the imagination of the audience but why take so many chances with so much of the story? The lack of dialog forces the viewer to have a distance and disconnect with the characters that a traditionally-voiced film would not have made. For such a dramatic film, the decision is ultimately a draw for it allows the characters to be cyphers to our own experiences but as a result of being cyphers, we never get to experience the character’s own stories.

One concern about the story is that the script and the material is almost too grounded in the 1950s. Modern sensibilities might recoil slightly at the thought of a man in his 50s (60s?) living with an unrelated girl in her early to mid teens. For that matter, what is such a girl achieving by sneaking away from her isolated town and is it a “happy” ending that she is taken in by a more traditionally-aged boyfriend? Doesn’t she have friends or family in that town that care for her? Yes, a similar situation arises in the live action movie, “The Professional,” but that is a difference scenario that is eventually explained adequately through plot and dialog. In “The Illusionist,” we are just to assume that this was normal behavior in 1950s Europe.

“The Illusionist” is ultimately a sad movie – “The Illusionist,” unable to adapt to a modern society growing to accept television, leaves the girl when it is financially impossible to continue, selling off his magic gear and releasing his rabbit out into the wild. Other performers share a similar fate, with a ventriloquist becoming destitute out on the streets. Unlike a children’s film, there is no “villain” or “goal” – It is simply the portrayal of life unraveling for some and continuing for others. Again, a healthy understanding of Tati’s life gives the film a greater gravity then is portrayed in the film itself – That Tati himself viewed the electronic medium as vile and destructive and that his performing lifestyle came at great expense to his family and especially his daughter.

It would have been nice had the movie simply focused on the magician – A man who is on the cusp of turning from being “older” to just “old,” a man who’s skill set has finally been eclipsed by modern day society. Until we’ve lived a good five or six decades, none of us knows if we’ll be able to make the transition from the world we grew up in to the world of our grandchildren. That would have been a fascinating movie to watch – A man forced to find a new skill set “or else.” While we sometimes see glimpses of that film, this film is too obsessed with the Fall / Spring relationship of the magician and the girl to allow that storyline to emerge.

Despite the mature setting and beautiful animation, “The Illusionist” falls short of entertaining because it forces the viewer to understand the life of the man who wrote the screenplay before the movie makes adequate sense. A movie should stand on it’s own story, though, and not rely on another to carry the emotional weight for it. Say what you will about American animated childrens’ movies (and a lot of it is understandably justified) but they have the sense to include a story with dialog where you don’t need to know the life history of the person writing the script in order to “get it.” Beautiful? Yes. Mature? Yes. Fulfilling? Not unless you take a few moments to read the history of the movie… And that’s why this movie, just like the Illusionist in the film, ultimately doesn’t succeed. Despite Tati’s acclaim as a mime and film director, perhaps there was a reason why this script was left unproduced during his lifetime.


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