The Illusionist: Better Than Toy Story 3 ?

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Sony Pictures Classics

The Illusionist

Last week, Sylvain Chomet got an early — and Jacques Tati a very late — Christmas present. The New York Film Critics Circle, the nation's oldest organization of movie reviewers, chose The Illusionist as the best animated film of 2010. Every other critics' group had named Toy Story 3 as the winner in that category, and the very notion of ignoring what many people consider the year's finest film, of any kind, seemed piquant at best, perverse at worst. I, for one, thought the New Yorkers who chose The Illusionist were nuts; and I'm not only a critic, I'm also a member.

Still, the NYFCC accomplished four possibly useful services. To moviegoers who hardly need to be reminded of Toy Story 3, the reviewers called attention to a worthy film — affirmative action being a critic's favorite act of seasonal benevolence. They thought outside the CGI box to honor a throwback work that was created mostly in the hand-drawn style of cartoon masters from the early Walt Disney to Japan's ani-maker Hayao Miyazaki. They paid posthumous homage to French actor-director Jacques Tati, who died in 1982, and whose screen character and original scenario inspired Chomet's new film. Finally, they alerted the members of the Motion Picture Academy who will nominate three titles for Best Animated Feature that The Illusionist, which cost little to produce and is likely to attract only a small audience, deserves serious consideration next to Toy Story 3, How to Train Your Dragon, Tangled and the usual expensive megahits.

Chomet, 47, won another NYFCC award (and an Oscar nomination) for his effervescent 2003 debut feature The Triplets of Belleville. This tale of an elderly woman's selfless intrigues with her bicycling grandson, some kidnapping mafiosi and three crazy chanteuses delighted all who saw it. One of these was Tati's daughter Sophie, who gave Chomet permission to turn one of her father's scripts, written some 50 years ago, into an animated feature. Tati, born Jacques Tatischeff of Russian heritage, performed as a mime in French music halls before making his name with a series of droll feature films: Jour de fête in 1948, Mr. Hulot's Holiday in 1953, Mon oncle in 1958, Playtime in 1967 and Traffic in 1971. Like The Triplets of Belleville, these were imaginative comedies employing few understandable words. Chomet based The Illusionist's main character on Tati's screen personality; and though he fleshed out the scenario and changed the main locale from Prague to Edinburgh, this is as faithful an adaptation as any Tatiist could wish for.

It's the late 1950s, and Tatischeff is a French magician of the old school — a dour soul performing sleight-of-hand in front of small crowds in moldy theaters. On a tour of England he must wait for seeming hours as a rowdy rock band raises adored screams, and when he does get to step on stage only two spectators are left: a boy explaining to his weary mother how the tricks were done. In a Scottish pub whose owner is one of the magician's few admirers, Tatischeff meets Alice, a doleful young woman employed as a cleaner. Charmed by his kindly attention, and believing he can perform real magic, she accompanies him to his next gig in Edinburgh, where they stay at a hotel for circus and vaudeville performers — tiny Alice sleeping in the large bed, tall Tatischeff uncomfortably jackknifed on a small couch in the sitting room. Could romance brew in this dismal milieu? Yes, but not involving the old illusionist. Ardent young men are always available for a pretty girl; but magicians, we are told, do not exist.

The character Tati assumed in his own films — the mostly-silent Monsieur Hulot — moved like a sad stork as he observed and exposed the little idiocies of French life, on summer beaches, in suburban office buildings and in bustling, soulless Paris. As director Robert Bresson radically purified film drama, flaying the elements of story-telling and performance down to their glum, pristine essence, so Tati was to movie comedy. Since Hulot rarely spoke, Tati the actor operated under a gag order of emotional reticence, and Tati the director imposed the same lack of affect on his films. A minimalist and an absurdist, he satirized modern culture with a view so lofty, so remote from the objects in his view, that laughter on the audience's part was purely optional. The appropriate response would be a wry smile, or a rictus, at the folly of the human species.

Adhering to Tati's severe precepts, and refusing the balm of a happy ending, The Illusionist challenges two implicit laws of all animated features: that they must appeal both to the funny bone and to kids. If you search for even the driest humor, you may find it in Tatischeff's bearing — imperious and mute, like the chief butler to a Czar — and in his stage costume of a red jacket and trousers a couple sizes too small, as if he'd grown out of a suit he received as a 12-year-old. Rendering the live-action Tati in animation, Chomet's team has subtly elongated his movements, giving Tatischeff a slightly inebriated elegance. Even when moving forward, he seems to be retreating, as if anticipating another rebuff from the world that has disappointed him so often, and for so long, that he is a man with neither dreams nor ambitions, only a job that he does because he always has.

The occasional landscape panoramas are bathed in rich colors, and many of the interiors boast a warm brown palette, but the movie has a wintry tone. For Tatischeff and Alice there's no hugging, no learning; they meet, share a flat and move on. If The Illusionist wants its viewers to feel anything, it is for the possibility that the older man might find a soul mate in the young woman. Charles Chaplin addressed the same theme in his 1952 Limelight; Chomet shares Chaplin's belief — and, for that matter, Jerry Lewis's in some of his later films — that only the childlike are imaginative enough to appreciate aging clowns. All are torch bearers of a long, honorable, imperiled tradition, like the blockers of hats, writers of epic poetry and speakers of Latin. An anachronism even in the late '50s, Tatischeff is acclimated to solitude. When he stumbles into an epiphany, it is not with Alice but in a movie theater where, on the screen, he sees himself: Jacques Tati in Mon oncle.

I wish I found The Illusionist as pleasing to sit through (twice) as to write about. I'm glad there's a "new" "Tati" film to add to his small, important body of work, yet I wish that the creator of The Triplets of Belleville had made a true Chomet film instead. I'll be waiting for that, with a hope to be found nowhere in this handsome, airless movie.