Among the three current Oscar nominations for best animated film, there’s one many local moviegoers might not recognize. Sylvain Chomet’s somber, beautiful The Illusionist managed to sneak in there and take a slot away from the likes of Hollywood animation behemoths like Tangled and Despicable Me.
While I love me some Tangled and feel it should’ve gotten nominated instead of How to Train Your Dragon, it’s nice to see the work of Chomet getting recognition. (Toy Story 3 is the other, and well deserving, nominee.)
Chomet was also nominated in 2004 for his beautifully grotesque and somewhat bonkers The Triplets of Belleville, a wondrously strange piece of work that felt like an animated version of a live action Terry Gilliam film (though not like Gilliam’s well-known animated work for Monty Python).
The Illusionist tells the story of the title character, an aging, affable, yet talented magician on the down-slope of his career. We see him go from grand theaters to bar gigs and private parties and, finally, a department store window in a futile attempt to keep his vocation alive and viable. It’s actually a remarkably sad movie for a cartoon.
Along the way, The Illusionist meets up with Alice, a young barmaid who tags along with him as he travels to Scotland looking for work. While his age is never stated, the drawing of The Illusionist gives him the appearance of somebody around 65 years old, which makes him somewhere in the area of half a century older than Alice.
While their relationship could be seen as creepy, Chomet has written them as having more of a father-daughter dynamic, with no real traces of romance. The Illusionist takes odd jobs when he can’t find entertainment work, most notably at a 24-hour garage where he doesn’t last a day, in an effort to provide for Alice. We see him constantly worrying, tabulating his living costs, considering his earnings, and then splurging on a nice coat or shoes for Alice despite the meager paychecks.
Like Belleville, The Illusionist is rich with little touches that go deeper than your average animated film. It’s old-school, hand-drawn animation, which gives it a sort of rustic, antique quality. Chomet gives his film very little dialogue, allowing the visuals to tell the story. Characters do little things—like quickly adjust their clothes—that make them more “human.” I was reminded of the grandmother in Belleville constantly adjusting her glasses.
The supporting characters, such as flamboyant rock band members, angular singing chanteuses, and snobby rich guys, give the movie some nice, odd flavoring. Chomet has a gift for humorous exaggeration, and his characterizations go well beyond stereotype into a realm that is exclusively his own. If a Chomet character were to cameo within a Disney cartoon, it would be instantly recognizable and perhaps a little jarring.
In addition to directing and writing the screenplay, Chomet composed the score, no small feat considering it’s an excellent blend of slow jazz and moody piano. It’s actually one of 2010’s better scores.
The film is based on an original screenplay written by writer/actor/director Jacques Tati, who died in 1982. The Illusionist character has been drawn in Tati’s likeness, and Chomet provides a unique moment when the character ducks into a theater and glimpses a few moments of the Tati film Mon Oncle. The Illusionist actually gazes on the real life inspiration for his likeness because it’s Tati on the screen. It’s perhaps the film’s most blessedly original moment.
The Illusionist isn’t necessarily 2010’s best animated film—my pick would be Toy Story 3—but it’s certainly the most unique. I hope Chomet picks his next project soon and takes less than seven years for his next movie. I definitely want to see more from this guy.