Who’s In It: The voices of Jean-Claude Donda, Eilidh Rankin
The Basics: In 1950s Europe, an aging magician named Tatischeff (Jean-Claude Donda) finds demand for his rabbit-in-a-hat illusions waning, overshadowed by the flashy new rock ‘n’ roll acts that are sweeping the continent. As he travels from town to town his irrelevance only grows, until he meets a young Scottish girl named Alice (Eilidh Rankin) who appreciates his modest brand of magic. Bonded by an act of kindness, she accompanies him on the road and becomes a foster daughter of sorts, filling his lonely life with light and laughter while he secretly works odd jobs to bring her new shoes and dresses – but how long will Tatischeff’s newfound purpose last?
What’s the Deal: Melancholy and moving, and presented appropriately in an evocative impressionistic 2D animation style, The Illusionist is a highly sentimental film about aging, parental regret, and obsolescence. It’s also an adoring homage to film legend Jacques Tati, who wrote the script in 1956; nerds with a case of Francophilia should especially appreciate the Tati-ness of it all, from Tatischeff’s name (Tati’s birth surname) to his appearance to a stunning moment of self-reflexivity when he escapes into a darkened theater to find Mon Uncle playing on the big screen. Just don’t go in expecting big laughs to go with the enormous sadness that hangs over The Illusionist. With the exception of a screwball sequence involving Tatischeff’s rabbit, the comic gags are mostly subtle, visual, and tinged with the acknowledgment of our hero’s diminishing place in the world – not quite kid stuff, to say the least.
How It’s Done: Director Sylvain Chomet (The Triplets of Belleville) may have gone a little Tati-overboard with his own script additions, but his presentation is sublime. His hand painted scenery and dialogue never explicitly identify the cities of Tatischeff’s travels, yet you always have enough clues to know which exact European locales he’s in. And about that dialogue: Although not a single character utters a discernible word, Chomet brilliantly conveys English, French, Gaelic, and even rabbit communiqués in something akin to the Charlie Brown wah-wah mumble, invoking the beauty in extra-lingual communication and kinship between strangers.
In a Way, It’s Like: Toy Story 3, the animated Pixar juggernaut that’s stealing all the thunder in this year’s Oscar race. The two potential Best Animation rivals are very different in style, since The Illusionist very deliberately uses 2D animation as an extension of its theme of outmoded art and artists in glaring opposition to Toy Story 3’s 3D CGI polish, but they’ve got similar nostalgia at their cores, both wistful about what it means to grasp one’s passing relevance to loved ones and the world at large. The bigger difference is in how they end: Toy Story 3’s heroes get to stay together for an optimistic and kid-friendly conclusion, but the sad man at the center of The Illusionist drifts off into a more pragmatic and honest uncertainty, alone with only a glimmer of hope for the future. But still, a glimmer.