Every so often I regret that due to my complete lack of funds and awkward geographic placement mean that I miss a lot of movies. I still have not seen The Town, The Fighter, Another Year or Barney's Version despite desire to see all of them, and I had to wait for Winter's Bone to hit DVD to see it. Add in the fact that a lot of foreign films don't actually see anything resembling wide release until after the Oscar nom's are announced and allowing myself to revise my top 10 of the year after the year is out would drive me crazy, so I don't allow myself to. My top 10 of the year are established as that was how I felt January 1st and that is how they will remain.
But every so often I run across a movie that makes me want to have an exception to my rule, or at least to make a temporary one. But I won't so I'll just say this: The Illusionist is good enough that it would have been in my top 10. Hell with that, in my top 5. It's not QUITE good enough to take a run at Black Swan or True Grit but it's good enough to beat out Inception and maybe even The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Yeah. It's THAT good.
Before I begin with the review proper, I imagine at least a few of you will be aware that The Illusionist is adapted from an unproduced screenplay by Jacques Tati, best known (in my mind anyway) for the fantastic French mindscrew Play Time, that it was intended as a love letter to his estranged daughter and that his only living relative is unhappy with it. Well put that out of your mind, say I. I haven't read his letter to Ebert about why he was unhappy with it, but it doesn't matter in my mind. If a movie is good, it doesn't matter who made it or why and this movie is most certainly good.
The Illusionist is devoted to an aging and down on his luck illusionist, traveling to Scotland looking for work, but who constantly gets upstaged by bands, movies and even a jukebox. While working a bar in a small village, a maid named Alice shows him kindness so he 'conjures' (IE, buys) her a pair of shoes to replace her broken ones. She becomes convinced that he has real magical abilities and follows him back to the city as he searches for work, living in a hotel full of aging performers.
I need to make one thing clear up front: There is a total of 0 consequential lines of dialogue in this entire film. I am not exaggerating. Oh characters talk, sure. But most it is single lines of inconsequential dialogue, like hello or no, and what isn't doesn't mean anything. This means that everything, from soundtrack, to character action, to background, to character design must pull double duty to make up for the missing dialogue.
And all of it rises to the occasion admirably. The soundtrack is beautifully written and incredibly used. The character design emphasizes each character's personality and can change subtly but noticeably. All of the character actions come across as natural and can tell us volumes about what each person is thinking. A single shot near the end (you'll know it when you see it), with the accompanying music, background and character placement was enough to move me near to tears.
But the background, like the rest of the animation, deserves special mention. If I knew anything about animation I could be gushing about the style they used. But I don't, so I can't. What I can say is that it looks GORGEOUS. Easily the best looking animated film this side of a Studio Ghibli film.
And despite having no dialogue of consequence, it still has one of the best screenplays of the year. Everything is clearly meticulously planned out to work with the overall feel and point of the film, even the characters walking through the background. I also love how it subverts expectations; With this outline, you'd expect the Illusionist to be poor at his job, with only Alice fooled. But instead, his illusionist skills are presented as excellent, even as his in-film audience remain uncaring. He is still excellent, but the world is moving on without him. And I would be remiss to not say that while it's a mostly lighthearted film and there is no real adult content to speak of, the film does deal with some dark subject matter and does not compromise with it's ending.
It's actually kind of a shame to me that Toy Story 3 (a good film in it's own right) is going to nab Best Animated Film at the Oscars Sunday. The Illusionist is a unique, beautiful, subtle, and deeply moving film and ultimately the superior work. I know it's not in wide release now, but if you can find a theater near you playing it, I'd really recommend you see it. If not, wait till it's on DVD and grab it as soon as you can. It's going to be a topic of discussion once enough people see it, and trust me, you want to be in on this as soon as possible. See you next time.
Elessar is a 21 year old Alaskan born cinephile and he'd love an animation expert to explain the mechanics of how they did that shot with the shadows at the end.