Beautiful but disaffecting is probably the best way to describe a film like The Illusionist. It is very pretty to look at and can be quite funny in places but it feels a bit hollow. The back story that I was unaware of lends it slightly more depth, but I will be honest in my philistinism here: my limited exposure to Jacques Tati has not left me enamoured of him.
In 1959, A magician travels from job to job until he meets a young girl in Scotland, who then joins him. The magic business doesn’t run so well, but the girl is convinced magic is real – so the magician picks up odd jobs here and there in Edinburgh to keep the girl in material possessions.
True to Tati’s form, The Illusionist has almost no dialogue. The character of the magician is modeled after Tati himself, and the girl is apparently supposed to be based on a daughter that he allegedly abandoned.
What follows, based on what we can piece together from the largely emotive animation and gibberish speak, is a literal object lesson: nothing comes from nothing, all people in entertainment are suicidally depressed (and this is apparently funny), and young Scottish girls fail to understand the way the material world operates.
It would be a disservice to silent films to say that the lack of dialogue means we can never really know these characters: it is the disjointed nature and repetition of the film that means that we don’t really know that much about them or care much for them. They are simple caricatures who don’t really have many emotions beyond a baseline affection for one another.
While it’s engaging to look at, there’s something ever so slightly off about the film. One of the aspects of this offness is that in many places it’s simply annoying: the depressive clown, the ventriloquist, the effeminate mincing “Britoons”, aren’t so much a joy to watch as they are a protracted distraction to endure.
While Sylvain Chomet was awarded for his Triplets of Belleville, this is a simple case where nostalgia for a much-loved filmmaker triumphs over “proper” cinematic sensibility.
I fully expect to be contradicted by the professional critical establishment when The Illusionist reaches wider attention. I enjoyed it “enough”, but I didn’t think there was much more to it than the fluidity of its mostly excellent animation.
Postscript: On the advice of commenter Matt I append some more context for the film: Roger Ebert has publicised two sides of the argument. First is “The secret of Jacques Tati“, the second is “In defense of The Illusionist“. The key quote in the defence is the following:
“The Illusionist” is a work of the imagination that seeks only to stand or fall as a film in its own right.
Personally, I think it falls. And that is all that really matters to me: it’s a movie that doesn’t quite work.