“The Illusionist” is like a time capsule from a bygone era. It harkens back to the time of silent films and Charlie Chaplin. In fact, the main character, the titular Illusionist, is very Tramp-like in his many misadventures, though much more melancholy.
The animated French film was directed by Sylvain Chomet (“The Triplets of Belleville”) and was also recently received an Oscar nomination for Best Animated Feature.
The nameless Illusionist is an aging magician who travels aimlessly looking for work. His line of work has become irrelevant and transparent, yet he dutifully performs for an empty audience each night. When he travels to the Scottish countryside, he catches the attention of a young girl named Alice, who eventually follows him in his travels, becoming a sort of daughter figure and a motivation for his work.
As animation goes, it is a beautiful film. There are many gorgeous sweeping shots of the mountains and the city of Edinburgh, reflecting the nomadic lifestyle of the titular illusionist. Much detail and precision is put into the scenery and backgrounds, which are playfully contrasted by the exaggerated features of the characters themselves.
There is little to no dialogue in the film, so despite being a French film with no subtitles, it’s not hard to understand. Rather than the characters gesturing with exaggerated movements, every motion and facial tic is subtly delivered, conveying expression and emotion.
And yet despite all this attention to detail, the characters themselves are dreary and depressing. World-weary and dejected, the Illusionist’s facial expressions never go beyond his blank and sad stare, even when bonding with his surrogate “daughter” Alice, who is the picture of wide-eyed wonder herself.
“The Illusionist,” to a certain degree, is storytelling at its most bare-boned best, relying simply on human emotion rather than dialogue to forward the plot. The downsides of this, of course, is that the plot can’t get any more complex and that the emotion on the screen isn’t actually human.
The plot, though poignant and moving, is thin and vague. One could argue that this is the nature of French movies (and Woody Allen movies). Things happen to the characters, but at the end they are exactly where they started. It is depressing and disillusioning, but perhaps this is the message that the movie intends for its audience. It is a jolt to reality for many American audiences expecting a happy ending. Like the illusionist says at the end of the film, “Magicians do not exist.”
Much like the aging magician himself, “The Illusionist” is a film that draws inspiration from an extinct era. While this is a nice throwback to a time when film was simpler and purer, it is easily overlooked by the more complex storylines and characterization of new animated films today.