Based on a 40 year old script by legendary filmmaker Jacques Tati, Sylvain Chomet's long-awaited followup is more than just an homage to the comedic Frenchman's genius. "The Illusionist," rendered in painstaking detail, tells a poignant story of the inevitability of change—in many ways it's a metaphor for the craft of hand-drawn 2D animation itself. (We highly recommend checking out the above trailer and the gallery of stills below.)
Tati's quasi-autobiographical script tells the story of an unnamed magician faced with the new wave (rock concerts and film) threatening the waning popularity of stage shows. As the grand halls where the protagonist once performed begin to shut him out, he finds himself having to travel from city to city looking for work, the venues becoming smaller and smaller as time wears on. Eventually led to Scotland by a boisterous Scot, he meets Alice, a poor young girl who becomes enthralled with what she believes is real magic. She becomes his unlikely companion, keeping house for a man who discovers meaning in providing for Alice.
While the plot line might strike some as materialistic (purchases define her growth as a woman), the script is full of the childlike wonder and delight for which Tati is known and a bittersweet ending counteracts any too-sentimental moments. The brilliant 2D animation (which went years over deadline), with all its finely-rendered detail and imperfections, is the perfect medium for the story, telling it with warmth and wit.
Building on the richness and depth established with his instant classic "The Triplets of Belleville," Chomet imbues "The Illusionist" with a subtle charm and style that the animator claims couldn't possibly be captured by digital animation. The most compelling example might be the parallel between the magician and Tati himself; much of the protagonist's movements reference Tati's famous Monsieur Hulot character. To save time, however, 3D animation techniques were used for certain complex scenes and integrate beautifully except for a few minor stutters that pros might notice.
Recently screened at the Telluride Film Festival to enthusiastic reviews, the film makes its Canadian premiere at the Toronto Film Festival this weekend, and will hit NYC and LA theaters this 25 December 2010.